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A need for editorial crusades.

Charles Lewis defines the role the Center for Public Integrity as "the skunk at the garden party" because it scrutinizes the influence that money plays in corrupting government and tempting public officials into ethical transgressions.

Lewis, addressing conventioning NCEW members in Providence, challenged editorial writers to raise a stink.

"The role of the editorial writer is arguably more important than any other time," he said. "There's a need for crusades with editorials. People need to start taking back their governments."

Lewis, founder and executive director of the center, delivered a sobering synopsis, touching on just a few topics uncovered in the center's 250 investigative reports and 11 books.

"I have an interest in ethical transgressions," Lewis said. "In the last few years the [House] ethics committee has been pathetic and unwilling to investigate their own. It's really out of control when a member from Texas is getting a homeland security contract while on the committee that gives out contracts. And he's been doing it for 20 years.

"The latest wrinkle is children of lawmakers having an interest in legislation," he said. "Seventy U.S. lawmakers' children or spouses are lobbying. I'm an old-fashioned guy. I had a notion governments aren't supposed to sell favors."

As an example lobbyists' influence, Lewis said the center looked at 10 years' worth of legislation on food safety and found not one bill had been passed. During that period "$41 million was spent on legislators by the food industry; $30 million from tobacco," he said.

Despite all the money and influence, Lewis said, Congress has lost its power.

"When we posted Patriot II on the website, the stunning thing to me was that Congress had not been consulted for six months," he said. "Even the key [congressional] people called Justice and were told there was no plan.... We have a strong executive who is not anxious to do a lot of consulting with Congress."

Still, Lewis said, it is nearly impossible to defeat an incumbent because "secret organizations" channel millions into campaigns.

"There are 100 million people who don't vote. We have a 98 percent incumbency re-election rate that is very close to North Korea," he said.

State legislators are just as protected, he said, noting 40 percent run unopposed.

The center posts on its website the financial disclosure statements of every state legislator and of its own foundation and individual contributors. It also maintains a searchable database that includes information on 527 corporations that Lewis terms "secret organizations."

"There are now 20,000 of these secret organizations. We found the Democrats are using these more than the Republicans," he said.

Lewis said their influence comes through back-door funding. Disclosure is limited.

"Whenever there is talk of regulating money and politics, all say they are for it. No one is going to do disclosure. They don't have limits now. They've spent $440 million in the last three years doing what they want. They are laundering and washing money legally all over the U.S.," he said.

And the Federal Election Commission "is a joke and doesn't regulate." With three Democrats and three Republicans, he said, the commission "lop[s] off hundreds of investigations."

Lewis called on newspapers and editorial writers to focus on state legislatures to uncover the influence.

There is a great need at the state level, where 25,000 new laws are passed annually. A lot of news organizations aren't covering state capitals, he said.

Luanne Traud is editorial page editor of the Union-Standard in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. E-mail ltraud@heraldstandard.com
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Title Annotation:Convention Speech
Author:Traud, Luanne
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2003
Words:588
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