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.
"There is so much money involved," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley told ABC News. "And there were so many people that had been hired -- all of the lobbyists here… A lobbyist really can perform a useful function [and] if you're going to be in politics you're going to have to raise money. It's when you get to the point that you offer a cash reward for any particular vote, then there's no one who can defend that."
These scandals have blossomed during a time when state-level politicians are receiving less attention from watchdog groups and journalists than ever. When more than 4,000 lawmakers, vendors, lobbyists, and legislative staff gathered for the annual convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) this summer, only 26 journalists – most of them local media -- registered to attend.
Many lawmakers participated in 40-plus hours of programs and sessions designed to address important issues such as education, health care, transportation, public pensions, and energy inside the convention hall. In the evenings, hundreds of state lawmakers attended lavish parties sponsored by lobbyists and corporate interests.
Over the course of four days, influential leaders from 50 states and Puerto Rico allowed themselves to be wined and dined and entertained by big corporations, labor unions and lobbyists. Corporate sponsors and lobbyists helped foot the bill for an extravagant river-front party featuring Kentucky barbecue, private dancing on the deck of the steamer Belle of Louisville, and live music by Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn and Patty Loveless – all invitation only. Later in the week, lawmakers were invited to Churchill Downs, where they were treated to private thoroughbred races, barrels of free bourbon, platters of tenderloin and prime rib, and the chance to win free access to a 2011 Kentucky Derby box.
"There's one thing you can say about Louisville, Kentucky," said the state's House Speaker, Rep. Gregory D. Stumbo. "They know how to party."
Blowout parties for the state lawmakers may be a convention staple, but what was different this year was the presence of five university graduate school journalists on assignment for ABC News, with cameras and questions. The five journalism graduate students took on the project of investigating America's state houses after being selected as fellows with the Carnegie Corporation for the summer.
"Do you think taxpayers back home would like to see their legislators partying it up at Churchill Downs?" one of the fellows asked North Carolina Rep. Martha Alexander.
"Well, I don't know, I've never really asked them to be honest with you," Alexander replied. "They probably wouldn't like it, but they don't like most of the things we do."
Reporter Cornered, Groped By Lawmaker
The students' footage provides a rare glimpse of what watchdog groups say is an unholy alliance that has been forged between lawmakers and lobbyists in the country's state capitals. Ellen Miller is the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan watchdog group that has long tracked money and in influence in Washington and is now also focusing on the state houses, where lobbyists vastly outnumber lawmakers, spending millions to gain influence.
She says she believes state lawmakers – many of whom work part time and are paid only stipends – are no match for the full-time lobbyists who are armed with big budgets to entertain and attempt to curry favor.
That's a formula, she said, "by which the lobbyists, usually [working] for corporations, are represented far better than ordinary citizens."
It is a dynamic that many lawmakers attending the conference in Louisville did not want to see on ABC News. The five students were repeatedly asked to put away their cameras at parties and dinners being thrown for state lawmakers. One lobbyist explained: "We normally don't allow media at these events because elected officials get worried and they are all running campaigns and I know you probably have that [camera] on."
Lawmakers being escorted on a private "VIP tour" of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat museum became alarmed when they discovered an ABC News reporter was tagging along. An NCSL staffer demanded that ABC News hand over the tapes.
An NCSL spokesman later objected to the students' reporting in an email sent this week. Gene Rose, the organization's communications director, characterized the group as "extremely transparent."
He also wrote that NCSL "does not sponsor, endorse or otherwise encourage participation in events outside of our schedule. This distinction is very important if you are going to incorporate video taken outside of our scheduled events."
Student journalist Nadia Sussman of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism asked the organization's most recent ex-president, Georga state Sen. Don Balfour, whether he had any concerns about appearances, holding lavish events at a time when people are facing furloughs in their states.
"I will tell you absolutely not," Balfour said. "When you go to a conference, for four days, no one expects me to be 24 hour a day, all four days, in a meeting room."
It was at one of the outside events -- a late-night party for lawmakers at a downtown Louisville bar -- that student journalists Alyssa Newcomb from Arizona State found herself cornered and kissed by a legislator from Puerto Rico, Jorge Navarro Suarez. He later said that because he has difficulty understanding English he was just trying to get close so he could hear her better over the noise of the party.
Reporter Threatened With Golf Club
Another event not on the NCSL schedule was a golf outing for Alabama lawmakers hosted by a top state lobbyist. When student journalist Dan Lieberman, of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, approached state Rep. Artis J. McCampbell, he clearly did not want the attention.
"And you are out here golfing instead of attending the conference or…" Lieberman asked.
"No, I'm out here, I have nothing to say," McCampbell replied.
When Lieberman restated the question, the Alabama lawmaker pulled out an iron from his golf bag.
"Look," he said, "if you don't want me to take this to you, then leave, leave, leave, leave."
Miller, of the Sunlight Foundation, was alarmed when she heard about the Suarez incident.
"When public officials act in this kind of way it really raises the question of whether they're fit to serve and represent the public," she said.
The 2010 Carnegie Fellows:
Kevin Morris is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and formerly worked as a translator and journalist in China.
Dan Lieberman completed his master's degree at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in May 2010 and now works at ABC News in New York.
Nadia Sussman is completing her master's degree in journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
Alyssa Newcomb is completing her Master's degree at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication and will graduate in December 2010.
Liz Day is continuing her master's in broadcast journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism part-time while also freelancing and chasing investigative stories.