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tv   Q A  CSPAN  July 5, 2010 6:00am-7:00am EDT

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>> for a snapshot of the 111 congress, this he's been directory. order online at /store. .
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>> there was a senator that died in 1976, 64 years old. he was labeled the conscience of the senate. i preface this because you did a story recently about the democratic club in michigan. what is it about? >> it is one of the most unusual of all of the political action committees. we try to take a close look at the way political action committees were spending their money and this came on the radar screen. they increased their revenues eight fold between 2007 and 2009 and they are now one of the most profitable or lucrative political action committees around. i am trying to take a look at how they spend their money like all the political action committees that we are looking at this year. they are spending theirs on bingo games. it is quite bizarre. >> why? >> i cannot say that i ever figured out exactly what is behind it because all of the key principals refused to talk to us about it at all. the democratic party refused to talk to us. the state lottery bureau refused to talk to us. the treasurer of the committee would not talk to us and the spokesman for the committee would not talk to us. it raised a lot of red flags. when people will not talk about what they do, we are more interested in learning about them than we would be otherwise. it turns out that this political action committee formed itself as a political action committee
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when they were about to go under in 2007 and they embraced bingo games in a big way. they have at least two every week. people come in and they contribute money to the bingo and the money that is left over goes towards funding democratic candidates, or at least it is supposed to. so far, they have raised nearly $2 million but they have only given out $5,000 to one candidate. a lot of the money is going to bingo supply firms and a lot of it is going out in prizes and some is going to the organizers of the club. it is not clear why they are doing what they're doing. when you get involved with politics and money, the money just washes everywhere and it is not clear where it is the way and there is no regulation the money once it is it could spill over into almost anything. other political action committees could have other kinds of gambling. this was very odd. >> your story says that it is lake st. clair, michigan. do you know where that is? >> it is not very far from detroit. >> the political action committee, is it regulated by anybody? >> well, you have to register with the federal register
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commission. they are tax exempt. they are supposed to spend their money on electioneering and give their money to candidates. this one is not. it seems like nobody is interfering with that because the way that they spend their money is lightly regulated if it is regulateddat all. >> i got on the "open secrets" site and saw a lot of committees with money after them. is that their winnings? how does the bingo thing work? >> people come in and spend between $40 and $60 apiece per night and are trying to win prizes. their prices range from $100 to $1,000. i called some of the big winners
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and asked if they really contributed what they some people disputed the amounts that are listed in the records. it is not possible, without an audit of this democratic club to know for sure if they are spending and collecting money the way that they should, because they are not even recording the names of most of the people who come and play bingo. the people that play bingo know where the money is going. most people who give money to the political system have to have their name attached to that money. there should be some way for people to check who is paying into politics. in this ccse, the players' names are not being recorded. >> how did you find out about
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it? >> we were looking exhaustively through the records of political action committees to figure out how they are spending their money and how they are conducting their work. >> what is your guess, one of the three senate buildings is named after philip a. hart from michigan. what would he think? he was not officially the conscience of the senate, but that is what everyone called him. >> i cannot help but imagine that he would think it was bizarre. >> where did the idea come from? >> there are all kinds of pacs. there are corporate pacs. the law says that corporations cannot give money to politicians.
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so corporations decided to form groups of officials, officers and their corporations. they got money paid back into the political organization that they formed and is directed by the corporation and that gives this money to these individuals to help them get elected. it is a way around the rules. that is one category of political action committees. another category is a party affiliated committee. these are entities created by the republicans, the democrats and other parties. they make their own donations. they collect money as the republican party does on a national scale and then it pays some of that money to help elect republicans and democrats do the same. there is this third category
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that we are looking at which is independent or non-affiliated pacs. they are not affiliated with a party. they are mostly ideological and promote themselves by talking about a threat of some kind to the way of life in america. they use stark, very partisan language. >> how do they spend the money? >> a lot of the money is sticking to the people that are collecting it. what we found on the international republican level and the national democratic level and the lawmakers that form their own pacs, is that a lot of the money sticks to them. >> you did not mention unions.
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are those also a case where members of the union are giving money to pay back or do they just take it out of the union dues? >> all of the contributions are voluntary. if you are running a corporation or a union, you cannot demand that your employee or your union member contribute. it is all voluntary. you find that in certain corporations, we have found, through scandals, that corporations and unions have leaned on officials and officers and told them that you are now vice-president and it is expected that you will be kicking in $5,000 or $10,000 a year to the corporate pac.
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if it is outright coercion, i think people get away with that. >> let me get some of your background. where were you born? >> i was born in chicago, illinois. >> you grew up there? >> i grew up there. >> what part of chicago? >> deerfield. >> where did you go to college? >> duke university and columbia university. >> your subject matter you majored in was what? >> political science. i grew up in a time when politics was pretty much in everybody's dinnertime conversation. >> if we saw you at age 16
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sitting around the dinner table, who would be there? >> my father and my sister and my mother. >> what does your father do? >> my father was a salesman and my mother was a stay at home mom. my sister was a year older than me. >> who was the most politically interesting? >> my parents were both politically interesting. they followed the news closely and we talked about the news. i was probably the most politically interested and active. i started my own little newspaper in elementary school and i was the editor of the high school paper and was president of the student council and i was into this stuff. it mattered a great deal to me then as it does now. >> you spent some time with "science magazine.". >> i did.
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i got tired and i wanted to come to washington. this is the place where politics is most exciting and i thought this would be fun. i came to "science magazine" and they said i could write about the regulatory system or anything i want as long as it had some elements of science in it. since i was interested in science, it was appealing to me. >> when did you go to "the washington post." >> they hired me as the space correspondent. i wanted to write about national security and i got hired to do that after a little bit of a wait. >> your biography lists a lot of awards and nominations for awards including a pulitzer that you won with a group.
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>> it was susan schmidt and jim -- i forget his last name. >> the reason that you won the award was for what? >> we were writing about tom delay and sue schmidt and her colleague were writing about jack abramoff and those two threads met because there was some heavy-duty action between tom delay and jack abramoff. my interest in political action committees stems from those associations. what i found as i looked at tom delay very closely and the way that he collected money and
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spent it was that a lot of the money that he collected stuck to him and he had a very nice lifestyle using other people's money. >> what do you think the circumstances are today, in 2010, compared to what they were when you were writing about tom delay and jack abramoff? has anything changed? >> yes, some things have changed. the senate has passed some reform that has encouraged transparency and makes it a+ little bit easier for us to find out about the money. the house has also strengthened its campaign finance disclosure rules and requirements. some of the more outlandish things that were widespread and commonplace, at the time that i was writing about tom delay and jack abramoff in 2005 and 2006, some of those things have been
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curtailed. you cannot any longer, if you are a politician or a lawmaker in congress, ride free on corporate jets. you have to pay the actual cost and nobody does it anymore. there are still some people who rent private jets with corporate money, but when they do it, it is very transparent. it is obvious where the money is coming from. >> going back to june 2, you have a story in "the washington post." i am just going to start reading it and ask you to explain it. --
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>> you have democrats in your story for those that are listening. we will get to those in a minute. why did to lead with that? >> this is a classic case -- people who describe, but this is like water that finds a hole. in years past, it used to be
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commonplace for corporations to basically finance vacations for lawmakers to fancy places. it used to be commonplace for all of their travel, their families travel, to be subsidized by a corporation that is trying to get something from them. a law, a benefit, a ruling of some kind that the congressman can influence. and those outright payments for travel have been curtailed. instead, lawmakers form political action committees and they pretend that they are trying to raise this money so that they can help other lawmakers, their colleagues. they say they only collect this money so that they can give it away to help others. they are kind of like bundlers. you take a lot of money and you give it away to the right places.
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you invest in the right places so that the candidates that you want to win will win. what is actually happening is that a lot of this money is sticking to the lawmakers that formed these pacs. it is being used by them to finance fund-raising events. these are not the hotels where most people stay. they are in five-star resorts. in the wintertime they are in warm places or at ski lodges, and in the summertime, they are in more comfortable places. you find john boehner, who is from ohio and has a great tan, he visited florida more than one dozen times in the past
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several years. >> what is hard to understand is a difference between a pac and leadership pac. what is the difference between a pac and leadership pac? >> a political action committee is formed either by a corporation or an ideologically motivated group or it is formed by a union or it is formed by somebody who has an interest to promote an advocate. a leadership pac is formed by
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lawmakers. it got that term, leadership pac, because it was formed by people who wanted to elect people to leadership positions. 400 members of congress all have leadership pacs. they can still have these leadership pacs and the leadership pacs are very lightly regulated. there is nothing that says that they have to spend all the money. there is nothing that says that they have to spend any money. some republicans and democrats have collected millions of dollars and not spent a dime on other candidates, yet they claim that it is for other candidates. we tracked one congressman who spent his money on mardi gras balls. he wanted to go dancing with his friends and his family and
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some of his owners, so he spent the money that way. i have a nice example of how money is spent. >> let me ask you, is there a limit to how much anybody can give a leadership pac like there is on a regular pac? >> i think the donation limits are $2,500 a cycle, $5,000 a year. >> so they bundle this and you can go to one corporation or one union and pick up checks from everyone in the room at the same time or go to one fund- raiser in naples at the ritz- carlton and do the same thing? >> yes. >> go ahead. >> the senate majority leader likes a certain steakhouse. in this current cycle, he spent $40,000 at that steakhouse,
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eating dinner with donors. >> that steak house is about three blocks from here. >> pete sessions is a republican from texas who likes disney world. he spent about $9,000 at the disney grande and he spent another $6,800 at a restaurant in las vegas. he likes to go to those places. dennis cardoza is a democrat from california. he likes to go to the race course. he spent $47,000 at the race course in baltimore. this is a congressman from california. he is raising money, but he is doing it at a race course in
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baltimore. he is not raising money in california. he is raising it at the race course in baltimore. >> did you see where they put a bill in the hopper, knowing that a committee will do this, knowing that this would be a way to raise money? >> if we had, we would have written about it and put it on the front page. it is hard to prove that those kinds of things were going on. it is hard to prove. it is hard to prove that a specific donation was given to achieve a specific outcome. the thing about the abramoff case that was different from the garden variety flow of money
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in washington was that there was a fabulous e-mail trail involving conversations, through e-mail, between abramoff and his colleagues about where they spelled out what they were buying and how and when. they said they would give this money for this result and then they got that result and then they celebrated that result in a backslapping fashion over and over again. you were able to see and put them all in jail because of the payment of money to produce this outcome. without that kind of e-mail trail, it is hard to establish the direct link. what we do, as reporters, without the ability to be present at conversation where deals like that are struck, is
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we can look at associations and we see that john boehner, when he goes to florida, he is regularly playing golf with lobbyists and the lobbyists are with industries that all have legislative interests before him that he can help influence as the senate majority leader. john boehner has great influence in the house. he can influence the pace at which the legislation is considered and he could rally the republicans to oppose house legislation. he can try to get his committee chairman to put inserts into a bill that affect corporations in a way that they would like. he is a good man to influence
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because he has influence himself. >> in your story that we were reading earlier, -- >> there is a lot more here and we will read some more. what is it about people that come to washington representing the public that makes them think that they have to be in limousines, private jets and at resorts? have you ever asked them? >> a big reason is that when you become a lawmaker, you have to swim in a sea of money to
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become a lawmaker. if you want to keep your job, you have to keep swimming in that same sea. who has the money? people with very lavish lifestyles who can afford to pay for political campaigns. you hang around with those people long enough and you begin to emulate their lifestyle. i think this is what is going on. a lot of lawmakers live large to their leadership pacs. they go to campaign events. they hold campaign events at fancy locations. john boehner likes to play golf. steny hoyer likes to ski and someone else is paying for it.
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you see people going to these places and someone else picks up the tab. it is easy if you are a lawmaker to get someone to pick up the tab. >> you mentioned john boehner and others, but unions give mega-millions of dollars. will their rank-and-file like it if any of these people that we mentioned were doing the limousine, a private jet, resort deal? or do they know? >> the lawmakers that are living high. they are emulating the donors. most of the wealthiest donors are corporations. unions give a lot of money also. we have not seen the same level of luxury surrounding union related events.
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i think that there may be a cultural issue there. i am not sure why that is so. >> but they still give leadership pacs and once you have a leadership pac, you can spend the money anyway you want to. but you cannot spend the money on your campaign from a leadership pac? >> that is correct. the law only allows you to one official campaign committee. and so you are technically not allowed to spend any of the leadership pac money on your own reelection. but what happens is that a lot of money gets spent on consultants and who is to know if they are being consulted on your colleague's races for your own race? there is no way to peer behind the screen and be sure that the money is being spent on someone else's election instead of your own. >> this is all perfectly legal.
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when a former guest was talking about something similar, he had three other colleagues with him and he is the only one doing this kind of thing . what about "the washington post?" >> we have a pretty robust group of reporters. this is a key part of the franchise to make sure that we are telling our leaders exactly what the flow of money is surrounding politics and how it is influencing political outcomes. we have a good team of about five or six people who regularly look at some aspect of money and politics. >> i know from talking to him, there are a lot of institutions
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created in the last 10 years that helped gather all this information and make it available. who do you rely on? >> you asked what was different from 2005 and 2006. a lot of the patterns surrounding the flow of money have changed but the flow of money is still the same. one of the things that has changed a lot between 2005 and the present is that there is a lot more information available. we were really looking into tom delay and jack abramoff, and i believe that those scandals helped awaken people that they need to pay attention to these matters. the "open secrets" website, the sun life foundation and others, there are a variety of places where you can go online for information that is extremely helpful. you can figure out who got what
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money from where and what that person's interest was and what happened in the legislation that is related. >> i went on these different websites, and i do not have it the way it should be, but just to talk it through, you find that whether it be the campaign legal center or the center for responsible politics, often the money comes from the same foundations. there is a thread through all of them and that is the open society institute of george soros and everyone knows where his politics are. i just wondered, have you ever looked at them and why all of these folks are giving money to them? because they are also giving money to the pacs, individually.
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what do they want? >> i have not interviewed the donors that give money to these groups, so i do not know why they are giving money. george soros is committed to transparency in politics and around the world. that is an ideological point. he thinks that the more transparency, the better. it explains a lot about what he is about. that does not mean that he does not have legislative interests of his own or that he does not make political contributions of his own, he just thinks that it levels the playing field so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. it is a great benefit to have this information in the public domain.
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>> i want to show you what a reporter had to say about this. >> disclosure on capitol hill discloses too much information to figure out. anyone can go to thh website and look up someone's pac and see how money is spent. it is a lot of them permission. another quick way of doing it is to go to the website. they are a non-partisan organization. i quote a woman a lot because she is a former prosecutor. she is on the left.
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she is left of center. she is a democrat. but she is honest in criticizing democrats as well. there is a lot of nonpartisan, or people that say that they are non-partisan organizations, that are slanted to the right or the left. in washington, you can get anyone to say anything. when you are trying to find a source, someone to quote, a good government watchdog group that is non-partisan, even though she is to the left of center, she has always been right down the middle. when you are criticizing something that the democrats do, you would want someone that is less likely to criticize them. >> do you want to put your own spin on all that? your own reaction to it?
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>> i think that all of these groups share the objective of ensuring that people know as much about what is going on in washington as possible. just as lobbyists in town shared a common desire to keep their work out of the public eye. a lot of what "the post" won the pulitzer for was. behind the screens and veils of the surrender the links between tom delay and jack abramoff and other lobbyists that surrounded tom delay. it is not easy to get behind the scenes and learn what is really transpiring. jack abramoff was a good lobbyist, doing fairly commonplace things in washington.
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those included creating shell corporations and other institutions, groups whose financial ties are obscure so that he could play in washington and not leave fingerprints and traces. as i said, it was a trove of private e-mail that really made the difference, access to private communications in his case, that helped us learn what was going on. but what he did and did well was to try to hide the ways in which his money was producing legislative results. and that is what we are all about. as advocates that share the
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desire to see this information splashed in the public domain, we are all trying to make sure the people know what is happening. >> let me defer for a moment on another subject. it has to do with a journalist's role. you were a finalist for a pulitzer prize for the abu ghraib stories. >> we were looking at the events that led to abu ghraib. >> were you there? >> no, i wasn't. we were trying to get information here in washington about the investigations that were being conducted by the
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military and to learn whether this was, as it was immediately portrayed, an isolated incident or if it was part of a bigger problem. we all know that it was quite commonplace. it was part of a bigger set of events. >> columbia journalism school. >> yes. >> if you think back, what you were learning there, how did it turn out? what did they not teach you that you learned about washington, dealing with this kind of information, the government and all? >> i think at columbia i learned how to become a better writer. there is nothing that you can substitute for on the ground experience in washington and figuring out how the place works. >> what would you tell those students today about getting ready to come here? what have you learned about this town and dealing with government?
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>> you have to be here and watch it happen for a while. figure know how you can it out from a distance or learn it in a classroom. you have to be an on the street on the ground reporter who is probing what is going on in different parts of washington to figure out how things work. how different pieces connect to each other. what influences what? who is important and who is not important? who is telling the truth? who is lying? you figure it out by walking around and reporting here. i cannot think of another way to learn it. >> one of the things i noticed in your story that i have been reading is that almost at no point did you quote somebody that was the principal, you always have to talk to the aid. the principal was not available. is that the way we should read it when we see the spokesman? >> it is always better to talk to the principal, but they want
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their spokesman to get out front in a story that is going to be controversial or provocative. >> here is a paragraph where you talk about the leaders. -- >> you talked about earlier where they write a law and then they get around them. what is your take on that? >> i cannot imagine the system
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would be allowed to persist for a long time. i think that eventually, people will wake up and accept that this is a way for money to have corrupting influence in washington. for a moment, there is not enough attention, not enough outrage, not enough of the momentum behind change. too many people benefit from it. the people that can control the flow of legislation being influenced by the flow of money that they get from their leadership pacs, and there is not much desire to make this change. >> explain that. we talk a lot about this on this program. we also have a lot of different kinds of people. on monday morning, there are a
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lot of emails if we have a guest that is very outspoken. on something that affects everybody, almost nil. >> the series of stories that we have done this year have pretty good readership commentary. people get it. there is not much confusion. there is not much partisanship behind it. this is not a partisan issue. we find the same abuses occurring among the lawmakers in both parties. this is not republicans versus democrats. this is about whether people with money are the ones that have the biggest influence and have hidden influence or whether it is about average readers or citizens or viewers having an influence.
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people get it. they know that this system is a corrupting system. they know it. >> i read somewhere, maybe it was you, that said that these leadership pacs do not have to have a name that connects them to an individual. as a matter of fact, i looked up a bunch of the senators' leadership pacs and there were some called freedom project, alamo pac, country first pac, heartland values pac. is it true that you do not have to -- you can contribute to these pacs and not even know who they are contributing to?
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>> they know who they are contributing to. the congressman or that senator is going to be in a position to do something nice for them later. it is interesting, there was this investigation by the office of congressional ethics into the spending surrounding a group called pma. >> this is related to john murtha? >> yes. he was the principal beneficiary, but not the only one, by far. they were looking at a bunch of people. they went to interview the heads of the corporations that were getting remarks after making contributions to these lawmakers through pma. they would ask why they made
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that contribution. in every case, they said that they were not just giving this money away. they were getting something. my corporate board would look askance at my spending the pac money without the expectation that something good would come from it. corporations are not charities. they make investments. they expect to get something for the money that they spend. that is true whether they are spending on leadership pacs -- and it is the same for unions. they expect to get something for the money that they give. >> in your article, --
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>> that is a pretty good return on a small investment, don't you think? for the pma group , i tallied up all the money that they had given. they gave the seven members of congress $834,000. that is not chump change. that sounds like a pretty serious investment. but guess what they got. they got earmarked grants of
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the worth of $235 million. they spent $834,000 and they got $235 million. >> in one organization gets $400 million a year from the united states taxpayers and spending that kind of money is to change. does it work? >> it works. this is something that is different in the last couple of years. it used to be that earmarks were given out by committees. there was no way to link up the donations to a specific member.
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the proposed earmark, money went in and money went out. it was always a good investment. he did not know how to connect those two. this is one of the key reforms that has taken place in the past couple of years. it has curtailed -- it has put an atmosphere of shame around the earmarking process. you can see that person's campaign receipts and their leadership pac receipts and you can see how much money they got and from whom. >> you quoted "tax payers for common sense," people pay their taxes every year.
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they think they have a government that is watching out for them. why is it that we need all of these independent foundations to do the job that a lot of people think government should do? >> well, governments everywhere need watchdogs of various kinds. that is what it is all about. that is what these groups are all about. they are just different kinds of watchdogs. the news media covers the broad surface. we are after the same gang. every government, no matter what kind of government, is going to need a watchdog of some kind. >> you are the bureau chief for "the washington post." would you rather do that or write this story?
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>> in rome, i was covering wars in the balkans and i felt like i was writing about matters that needed to be brought to the attention of policymakers in washington who had a capacity to influence the outcome of those. and the degree of u.s. participation or not. i am writing about money and politics now because this is an election year. these issues are on the table right now. >> this is a little bit out of -- we have not been talking about anything like this. you wrote a piece recently. this had to do with the state of virginia. it was about a name from the past.
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this is a man by the name of fred malek. can you tell us about this story? >> it is a quintessential washington tale. a lot of people cycle through washington. they have an impeccable record of service in washingtonnand they become washington sages. there are people that are regarded with great respect. people from every political strife. in the course of their careers, maybe out of ambition and a mistake in he early part of their careers that is hard to leave behind. fred malek was a senior aide to
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president nixon and he made what he described as the most serious mistake of his life. when nixon decided that he was being blindsided by employees of the bureau of labor statistics who were undermining his positive messages about economics and economic growth, whether nixon's economic policies were helping. nixon was an anti-semite. he decided that it was a jews in the bureau of labor statistics that were behind this effort. he asked the chief of staff at the white house to figure out
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who these people were and fire them. malek was doing personnel work at the white house and he helped collect the list of 13 people who he thought were jewish and he forwarded this list up the chain and said that he got a message back that we wanted to get rid of these people. he was part of the effort to get rid of the people that were jewish in the bureau of labor statistics. for years, he maintained that he had only peripheral involvement and all he did was basically respond to an order from a superior, but that he did not have any heavy interaction. fred malek left the white house and he went to work for the marriott corp., which was a big supporter of nixon.
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bill marriott was the chair of the 1972 inaugural committee at a moment when nixon was having a lot of trouble and the marriott family was there. he split off from the marriott family assistance and started his own company and became even more wealthy than he was before he started at the white house. he is now one of the biggest republican donors and power brokers in washington. >> a big sarah palin supporter. >> a big supporter. he has apologized for doing what he did in the past, but he has also said that he did not have any heavy-duty involvement
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in this. lo and behold, after a certain period of time, white house papers were available to the public, and in january they released his personal papers and that did not go unnoticed. it was noticed by democrats in town. they noticed there was new information in those papers and they called it to the attention of others. he is influential, but he has this grim episode in his past. it is a lesson, in a way, for people to come to washington, that if you make, out of ambition as a young worker, that episodes can follow you for a long time.
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>> what did the governor of virginia, bob mcdonald, do? >> he appointed malek to work on a commission that was meant to examine ways to fix the budget in virginia. that was a function that malek has great experience with. he was involved with firing so many people. >> but that created an opportunity for you to write a story because people were complaining about his past. what is the moral of the story? >> the moral of the story is that if you make a serious mistake in washington, it will follow you around for a long time. >> will you continue pursuing these pac stories? >> sure. we will follow the money right up to the election this year. this is an important election.
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they always are. who is spending? who is getting? those are big questions. >> jeff smith, of the "the washington post." thank you for joining us. >> for a dvd copy of this program call 1-877-662-7726. for free transcripts or to give us your comments about this program, visit us at q& episodes are also available as podcasts.
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