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Ethics panel rebukes congressman

By MARY JACOBY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Days after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, a congressional aide named Ann Eppard quit her job on Capitol Hill to open her own lobbying firm. There would have been nothing remarkable about the move except for who Eppard was and where she was going.

For 21 years Eppard had been chief of staff, campaign fundraiser and self-described best friend to Rep. Bud Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican in line to oversee billions of dollars in federal spending as incoming chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Eppard's lucrative new job: lobbying Bud Shuster.

On Thursday, the House ethics committee closed a three-year investigation into the official and personal ties between the congressman and his former aide. In unusually harsh language, the panel rebuked Shuster for "significant violations" of ethics rules but declined to ask the House to impose a more serious punishment, such as censure.

While ethics actions against better-known figures such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Sen. Bob Packwood have attracted more attention, the Shuster case is noteworthy for the vivid picture it paints of modern-day political grifting.

Among the committee's findings:

Shuster appeared to have spent $700,000 in campaign funds over five years on improper personal expenses. Shuster frequently chartered jets instead of flying commercial, the report said, and spent $300,000 on "political meetings" that mostly seemed to consist of his and Eppard's dining alone together at expensive Washington restaurants.

Shuster routinely commandeered his congressional staff to work on his campaigns, violating prohibitions against using official taxpayer resources for political activities.

Shuster, who is married and has five children, violated House gift rules when he allowed lobbyists to foot the bill for recreational trips with his family to Puerto Rico.

Shuster allowed Eppard to have regular and close contact with him -- even allowing the lobbyist to arrange his congressional schedule to accommodate meetings with clients "in a manner that created the appearance that your official decisions might have been improperly affected."

During this period, Shuster and his family also regularly lodged at Eppard's luxury suburban Virginia townhouse. Eppard was able to purchase the home after her firm began earning more than $1-million annually in fees from Amtrak, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Conrail and other clients who wanted to lobby Shuster.

While little known outside of Washington, the 68-year-old Republican is considered one of the most powerful and feared lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A short, pugnacious man with cheeks as round as apples, Shuster shuns ideology in favor of pork barrel politics.

Members of Congress are loath to cross him because he can make or break the highway, bridge, airport and other transportation construction in their districts that lawmakers consider important to their re-election bids.

The ethics report revealed a kind of casual arrogance on Shuster's part. In Palm Springs, Calif., for a transportation conference, for example, he once summoned a FedEx corporate jet to shuttle him and Eppard back to Washington.

But it was the appearance that companies needed to hire Eppard to get access to Shuster that formed the heart of an outside group's original complaint to the committee in 1997. On this question, the committee basically punted, watchdog groups charge.

"The point is, you stick a dime in Ann Eppard's lobbying firm and out comes a provision in Bud Shuster's bill," said Gary Ruskin, head of the Congressional Accountability Project, a group founded by Ralph Nader that filed the original complaint.

Last year, Eppard pleaded guilty to receiving improper compensation to help protect Boston-area companies threatened by a federal highway project. Shuster's committee had jurisdiction over the project. Shuster was not charged.

The committee, however, reviewed several allegations of influence peddling and found "no reason to believe."

Yet the report did describe the panel as "troubled" by a 1995 memo written by the head of a light rail project in Puerto Rico that was seeking federal transportation funds. The memo, to a high Puerto Rican government official, sought action on a plan to hire Eppard for $75,000 annually.

"Ann is . . . publicly embarrassed because she told Congressman Shuster . . . that she was under contract which was an important aspect in obtaining the $15-million appropriation," the memo said.

Meredith McGehee of Common Cause said a self-policing body like the House ethics committee may be uncomfortable sanctioning behavior seen as common on Capitol Hill.

"I think there is a certain recognition up there that some kinds of behaviors are pretty common," she said.

For his part, Shuster denounced the committee's findings as "overkill for the charge of causing misguided public perceptions." His lawyer, Reid Weingarten, defended him on Thursday as a devoted public servant and said some of Shuster's supposed offenses were not as bad as they might seem.

In its letter to Shuster, the panel wrote that it was "disturbed not only by the content of your response but by its tone. It is one of blame-shifting and trivializing of misconduct to which you have admitted." The letter is called a letter of reproval and is the mildest form of sanction the committee (formally, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) can mete out.

The ethics action appears to end the case against Shuster, although it remains possible that he could face prosecution on the allegation he used campaign funds for personal use. It is illegal to use political donations in that manner. However, many of the documents Shuster and Eppard produced to the panel were done so with a grant of immunity, apparently putting them off-limits for future court actions.

-- Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

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