The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s latest investigation into money, politics and ethics explored the business ties among longtime Congressman Ed Whitfield, his lobbyist wife, and another well-known lobbyist.
For more than a decade, the trio was linked in a financial partnership — a land deal at a luxury resort in West Virginia. Meanwhile, the two lobbyists had clients and employers with business before Whitfield in Congress.
The congressman didn’t respond to our 10 inquiries. His wife, lobbyist Connie Harriman-Whitfield, did. She said the American people don’t care about alleged misdeeds between lawmakers and lobbyists.
“Do you think that every time you guys write an article about untoward dealings, or what you perceive to be untoward dealings, about a member of congress or a lobbyist, that people care anymore? They don’t care. People don’t care,” she said in an interview on June 9.
Here’s the interview:
Connie Harriman-Whitfield is a Washington, D.C., insider. She knows politics. She oversaw the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. She later served as director of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and worked as associate solicitor at the Department of Interior.
She currently works as “senior policy adviser” at the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which lobbies her husband on issues. The fund has donated at least $8,000 to Whitfield since 2011, when she began lobbying for it.
Harriman-Whitfield doesn’t want to answer questions from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
“Let me just tell you. I have answered The Washington Post. I have answered Politico. I am not going to talk to you about the Humane Society,” she told us. “You are way behind the curve on that one. I am tired of defending….I am tired.”
We talked to six ethics experts. They said the Whitfields’ mix of politics and personal finances with lobbyist Juanita Duggan raises serious ethical, and possibly legal, questions. One of them, convicted felon Jack Abramoff — a lobbyist who knows corrupt dealings — said the arrangement “doesn’t smell right.”
Congressman Whitfield’s ethics have been under scrutiny before, as we reported.
But do you care?
Do people really not care about the influence of money in politics, as Connie Harriman-Whitfield told us?
Lawrence Lessig, a well-known law professor at Harvard, explored this issue recently in the Atlantic.
“Even though 96 percent of America believes it is “important” to “reduce the influence of money in our politics,” the reality, as any political pundit will tell you, is that it is almost impossible to translate that belief into any meaningful political action.”
Lessig noted that while nearly all citizens believe it important to reduce the influence of money in politics, 91 percent believe it is essentially not possible.
“A single statute could remake D.C., if only we could build the political pressure to force Washington to adopt it. For political pressure comes in a currency that the people still hold: the vote.”
We shared our Harriman-Whitfield interview with Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington.
“I find the arrogance of that statement kind of astonishing” and “part of the problem,” McGehee said. An elected official is “holding the public trust. That’s why there are ethics rules, that’s why people should care about them.”
But people in positions of power often fall prey to the belief that “they can do pretty much what they please, without much scrutiny,” because they think nobody does care McGehee said.
McGehee concluded by saying:
“The point here is to remind a public official and their family that this is the job of the press and watchdog organizations, to ensure that powerful people in public positions are held responsible for the ethical standards, and to let them know that power has to be held accountable, that watchdogs are watching.”
This story was reported by Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.