One of the nation's top criminal prosecutors said this week that the U.S. Department of Justice is aggressively pursuing cases against corrupt state legislators in several states on the heels of recent arrests in Alabama, where lawmakers have been accused of accepting bribes from gambling lobbyists in exchange for their votes.
"State officials are absolutely in our sights," said Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, in an exclusive interview with ABC News. "Even at the most local county level. If we hear about corruption we're going to pursue it -- whether you're the city commissioner, the county person, the state person, or the highest person in the federal government."
Breuer's comments came at the conclusion of an ABC News investigation airing tonight on World News and Nightline, which found that more than half of the states in the nation have had to contend with sordid or illegal behavior by their state representatives in the past five years, including the indictment or conviction of at least 80 state legislators during that period. The ABC investigation, which was conducted by five student journalists, also documented boorish or unprofessional conduct by state politicians attending an annual gathering of prominent state legislators this summer.
One elected official attempted to grope and kiss a student journalist attending the event. Another lawmaker physically threatened a student journalist with a raised golf club when cameras caught the legislator skipping a good government seminar at the conference in favor of a private golf outing with a lobbyist.
America's state capitals have played an increasingly important role in recent years as state politicians have been asked to make critical decisions on everything from insurance and banking regulation to gun possession and tobacco use. Though they operate in relative obscurity, state legislators control more than a trillion dollars in taxes and spending, and laws that affect everyone.
As spending from lobbyists and interest groups has increased, trouble has followed. Federal agents have conducted stings in Alaska, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and New Jersey, where one lawmaker was captured on hidden cameras pocketing cash outside an Atlantic City steak house. In Massachusetts, a female lawmaker was photographed stuffing a payoff into her bra.
Among the most recent indictments are those of four lawmakers in Alabama, where federal prosecutors have alleged the politicians accepted bribes from lobbyists seeking to loosen restrictions on electronic bingo – a contentious issue in the state. All 11 defendants in the Alabama investigation have pled not guilty.