Friday, October 20, 2006

War News Update

Events have overtaken our Monday comment about the dearth, in GreeneLand media, of news about the 20th Congressional District election. Thursday’s Daily Mail gave top billing to a story headlined “Sweeney may have violated ethics rules.” Drawn from the TimesUnion by way of the Associated Press, the story concerned a trip that Rep. John Sweeney took to the Northern Marianas Islands, in company with a Jack Abramoff sidekick. An altogether different story also attracted substantial coverage in district news media yesterday (but not in our Mid-Hudson papers, and not this morning). It has to do with straw poll results. Drawing on most of the stories, we will review the two episodes. Then we will add a story.

I. STANDINGS: Sweeney is still ahead—or isn’t

Widely reported in district news media yesterday was the story that, according to the latest Siena Research Institute poll, Congressman Sweeney still held, as of mid-October, a substantial lead over challenger Kirsten Gillibrand. The new figure, based ostensibly on responses from a representative sample of likely district voters, put Mr Sweeney in the lead by 54% to 39%. That figure marked a gain since late August for Ms Gillibrand of 5 percentage points. Media coverage of the Siena finding eclipsed coverage of other polls. These seemed to show a very close race or even a substantial lead for Ms Gillibrand. The coverage worked greatly to Mr Sweeney’s advantage. (The bias, we feel sure, was not intentional. It probably was a product of how the relevant information got to the reporters. Only the Siena results, apparently, were delivered in the form of a news release. In other cases, Press coverage has worked to Mr Sweeney’s disadvantage). There seems to be huge disparity here between the findings of various pollsters—all of them reputable. The surveys indicate that in mid-October, Mr Sweeney was ahead by about 14 percentage points, that Ms Gillibrand was ahead by about 13 points, or that the race was neck and neck. At any rate, all of those results were collected before the big outburst of news yesterday about an ethical issue.


News about straw poll results came right on the heels of a story that in various guises was disseminated in over 120 newspapers and newscasts. The most common headline said “Sweeney Trip Raises Ethics Questions.” Immediately at issue was whether, following a trip in January 2001 to the Northern Marianas, far to the west of Hawaii, Mr Sweeney complied with requirements to identify sponsor(s) and costs. What has come to light, thanks apparently to sleuthing by TimesUnion reporters, is a denial by the Marianas government that it paid for the trip. That denial is important because the relevant laws say government-sponsored trips, unlike privately-sponsored trips (and other favors) do not need to be reported. Mr Sweeney did not file disclosure forms about this trip. His spokesperson, Melissa Carlson, says he did not do so because he believed that he went out there as a guest of the trust territory’s government. Mr Sweeney now has written to the House Ethics Committee, indicating that the trip may have been funded by a private organization, and soliciting guidance about how he should proceed from here. Many aspects of the case remain to be illuminated. In the interim, Mr Sweeney’s challenger has seized the occasion. “It is is no surprise that John Sweeney is in trouble again," Ms Gillibrand commented. "It's not clear what's worse: his failure to disclose that a criminal paid for his trip abroad, or that he was willing to sing the praises of an island of sweatshops and child prostitution." What could come to light is evidence that in making this trip, Mr Sweeney was serving as a tool of that super-star of criminal influence peddlers: Jack Abramoff. Here is a grab bag of facts and hunches: *Escort. Traveling with the Congressman on this long journey was Tony Rudy, who had recently left the staff of Rep. Tom DeLay (yes, that fellow) to join Abramoff’s lobbying firm. *Connection. The Marianas government was a major client of Abramoff. Its major asset was the right to print “Made in USA” on products manufactured in the territory while eluding obligations to meet State-side wage and safety standards. *Front? Mr Sweeney suggests now that his trip was sponsored by the private Saipan Chamber of Commerce, and paid for out of receipts from the meeting at which he gave a speech. That is patently preposterous. Airplane travel far to the west of Hawaii, to a seldom visited siteThe trip costs thousands of dollars. If the Chamber paid for it, somebody paid the Chamber. *Tour. Mr Sweeney says he made a tour of garment factories in the trust territory and found nothing “untoward.” His Congressional colleague, George Miller (D-CA), responded that “the only way you could avoid seeing the abuses”—low wages, child labor, health hazards, forced prostitution—“is if you were deliberately looking the other way." *Speech. Mr Sweeney’s talk to the Saipan Chamber of Commerce was mostly about how to avoid bad Press in the United States. *Credentials. On the subject of how he came to be invited to visit the trust territory and address the Chamber of Commerce, Mr Sweeney refers not to his position in the Congress but rather to his pre-Congressional experience as New York State’s commissioner of labor for two years. And but that presumably formative stage of his career is not even mentioned on Mr Sweeney's campaign web site. (It is mentioned in the biographical section of Mr Sweeney's official web site. Also puzzling: the official web site says naught about Mr Sweeney's personal life, whereas the campaign site says "...resides in Clifton Park…with his wife and has [sic.] three children.”).


Another matter of ethics has come to our attention. In Monday’s issue of Seeing Greene, we devoted attention to widely distributed letter from Mr Sweeney’s camp, appealing for active campaign support in the way of letters to newspapers and calls to talk-in broadcasters. We can now report that Mr Sweeney is augmenting this effort by urging supporters, or beneficiaries of his political largesse, to send letters that are drafted by his staff. And what’s most peculiar about the project is nature of the suggested letters. Mr Sweeney does not ask for testimonials, in which the sender praises the Congressman for particular services rendered. Instead, he asks for attacks on the Democratic nominee. And he asks the addressees to pretend that they by personal investigation they have made discoveries that make Gillibrand look bad. Of that kind of request, one recipient told Seeing Greene, “To be asked for open recognition of benefits received is fair enough. But this kind of request is offensive. It’s outrageous.”

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