January 21, 2009

Frank talk on corporate jets gets a good grounding in Congress

Posted: 04:08 PM ET

Note from reporter: Congressman and Senators love to get a lot of press when initiating bold, new legislation, tough talking amendments or major initiatives.

One of the reasons they seek media attention on the "front-end" is because they know, as do those of us who cover them, that it is very rare anything ever really gets done on the"back end".

Most new legislation winds up going nowhere. In our continuing effort to "Keep Them Honest" here is a look at one of those bold proposals that went nowhere almost immediately upon its introduction .


When those auto makers flew to congress in corporate jets to ask for a taxpayer bail out, no one was more upset than the powerful chairman of the house financial services  committee, Rep. Barney Frank(D-MA).

So irate over the use of corporate jets, Frank was determined to make sure it never happened again. His plan, no corporate executives coming to Washington asking for bailout money would be allowed to travel in those multi-million dollar symbols of excess.

 To make sure corporate America got the message, Mr. Frank dropped a provision into the latest bailout bill, H.R. 384, the TARP Reform and Accountability Act, requiring would-be recipients of taxpayer funds to dump their corporate fleets. Basically, if you want taxpayer money, sell your jet and fly commercial.
That sure sounded tough. And it sure sent a message to the automakers. When they came back to Washington they drove.

 But it turns out Rep. Barney Frank may have overreacted. Last week Rep. Frank quietly stripped the no-jet provision from the bill. Why? Kansas.

 Kansas is a hub of aircraft manufacturing, particularly the making of corporate jets. Fellow democrat Rep. Dennis Moore (D-KS)sent a note to Congressman Frank delicately suggesting the powerful chairman re-think the tough talk.

 "We have to be careful about congress overreacting," Moore wrote in a statement.

 What he wrote to Chairman Frank was more diplomatic.

 "It is clear that the auto executives were insensitive to American taxpayers when they flew in their private jets to request billions of dollars. But I have concerns that applying this well-intended provision may have unintended consequences of hurting the general aviation industry and its  workers."

The congressman pointed out pointed out 44-thousand workers in Kansas work directly for the airplane manufacturing industry, and a lot of families depend on those paychecks.

Last Tuesday the "no-fly" language was dropped, and yet another get tough message from Congress got a soft landing.

Late today, Chairman Frank sent a statement to CNN explaining why.

Here it is: "The private aircraft industry is an important industry in America, and it plays a necessary role with businesses in certain areas of the country.

For example, there are a number of communities that do not have commercial air service available for hundreds of miles.

Some of these communities are already in economic distress, and denying businesses the ability to use private aircraft further disadvantages these businesses and seriously impacts thousands of American jobs that provide services to this industry.

 I heard from many members of Congress from both parties representing a half a dozen states expressing concerns of their constituents in regard to this matter and hence why we further reviewed the issue and ultimately removed it from the legislation."

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit

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January 20, 2009

How did they get that seat? They paid.

Posted: 11:45 AM ET


This may be a day of change, but one thing never seems to change about Washington: money opens doors, and in this case seats to history.

While millions huddle in the cold for a peek of the swearing in ceremony, those with thousands have paid for the privilege most of us can’t afford.

The inauguration is being financed by private donations. The donations are being limited to $50,000 per contributor.

No lobbyists are allowed to give, per strict rules by the Obam-ites. But like all things DC there is wiggle room, so families of lobbyists can give.

Others, like liberal activist financier George Soros seems to have his whole family giving the limit.

The Center for Responsive Politics collected the data. You can view it right here.

Take a look at who you see on screen and then see just how much they gave to get that spot.

I find it a fun and interactive way right here to see how Washington never really changes. 

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit

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January 7, 2009

Victory for our summer interns!

Posted: 01:05 PM ET


Well they aren't summer interns anymore. Actually most of them are probably working real jobs, but their work two years ago for CNN's investigative team finally has brought the entire congressional earmark process into the open.

In the summer of 2007, we assembled a team of interns to ask every senator and every member of Congress to disclose their pork barrel requests, known as earmarks. The requests in the past have been done in complete secrecy. Most of us found out about pork barrel spending only after it was included in budget bills.

We upset a lot of politicians with that survey. Most members of Congress and the Senate never even bothered to call us back. But a few did and thought it was a good idea for us to post their requests online.

Now they all will have to do it....because the two people in charge of doling out the money, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin) issued new rules today (you can read them below). Basically, if you want the people’s money, you’d better tell the people why, online and in advance.

I can't help but think our summer interns have brought a little summer sunlight to the dark world of congressional spending.

For more info see this release.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit

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November 21, 2008

Teaching old school politics to freshmen

Posted: 05:01 PM ET
And it doesn't get more old school than this. I was standing outside the democratic national headquarters Wednesday morning, watching a parade of lobbyists heading in to 'meet and greet' the newly elected freshman democrats. But this wasn't about just meeting and greeting. The purpose was to introduce the new legislators on Capitol Hill to the old money from K street.congress-invite0013

The lobbying crowd was being encouraged to come and "retire the debt" of the new democrats who had spent a fortune campaigning their way to this day. sponsored by old boy veterans, John Dingell of Michigan and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, it was a back slapping, check writing affair. Dingell and Rahall actually advised in their invitation just how friendly the lobbyists and political action committees should be: anywhere from $2500 to be a friend, up to $20,000 to be a "host".

Somebody slipped us the rather blatant cash plea invitation and you can see for yourself the "dance card" that helps lobbyist keep track of the money they were passing out.

What really was surprising is just how open and honest the pols and the lobbyists are about this. When asked if this just the same old pay to play politics in action, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia asked if I had a better idea. And Steny Hoyer, the house majority leader for the democrats said, of course the lobbyists are getting access, but then said its the same kind of access anyone could get if they helped on campaigns or turned out at town hall meetings.

So who did get access? Ric Fenton is a lobbyist for the mining industry. He told me he is really an educator serving a vital function on the hill. Then he admitted his vital function on this chilly morning in DC was to hand out cold, hard cash.

"How much are you giving today?" I asked.

"I think we're giving $5,000."

"To one or a bunch?"

"To several. We go through that fairly thoroughly."

I guess when you are an educator on Capitol Hill, like Mr. Fenton, you really need to make sure the students learn their lesson. $5,000 a pop sounds like a good start for the study of old boy politics 101.


Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit

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November 4, 2008

Covering ACORN With A Hatchet

Posted: 03:05 PM ET

So today I got a letter sent to all Catholic Bishops in the U.S. announcing that due to serious problems at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is suspending all funds to ACORN.

It’s significant because the Catholic Church in the U.S. has given $7.3 million dollars to ACORN projects over the past decade. Just last year, U.S. Catholics gave more than a million dollars to ACORN. And it appears some of that money filtered down to the ACORN office in Las Vegas that made headlines trying to register the Dallas Cowboys football team to vote in Nevada.

The problem for the Catholics is two fold:

The Catholic Church is concerned about its own tax exempt status being involved in a group that is now so deeply involved in political support of one candidate.
The Catholic Church says questions have arisen about ACORNS financial management, fiscal transparency and accountability.

So, of course, I immediately called ACORN’s spokesperson Scott Levenson, one of many public relations specialists brought on by ACORN to fight all this bad press. And here is Scott’s response to the question about the Catholic Bishop’s suspending ACORN funding:

"The facts are wrong and we will no longer participate in a Drew Griffin hatchet job against ACORN.”

Less than an hour later, after our editorial director made a call to ACORN asking if this really was their response, we got this from another public relations specialist ACORN brought on to fight the bad press:

“ACORN is grateful to have received CCHD funding for many years, and proud that CCHD has enabled us to help our low income constituency achieve the American Dream. We know that CCHD is reviewing their current funding, and we are in discussions with them about continuing their support.” – Steve Kest, ACORN Executive Director

The tension over at ACORN must be so thick you could cut it with a …well, I guess a hatchet.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics • Special Investigations Unit

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October 27, 2008

Negotiating for that ACORN “sit down in our office” interview

Posted: 06:35 PM ET

If you’ve been following our attempts to find out why so many ACORN voter registration forms are being turned in with apparently fraudulent information, you may have also seen my interview with ACORN’s chief organizer Bertha Lewis.

During our live interview I asked Ms. Lewis what ACORN was or is doing to prevent further voter registration fraud. She invited me to go to New York and see for myself.


Here is how the conversation went:

DREW: “Is there anything else you can do, in terms of greater openness to put these issues to rest? Can you open the books? Can we work this out?

Bertha Lewis/Acorn chief Organizer: “Sure, we want Drew or anyone, Drew come sit down in our office.”

Of course, immediately after the interview, my producer Kathleen Johnston, called to ask when we could come and sit down in Ms. Lewis’ office, in fact we asked if we could come tomorrow. That was 11 tomorrow’s ago. We are still in negotiations with ACORN as to what exactly Ms. Lewis meant by her “come sit down in our office” invitation. ACORN has hired a crisis management team and a public relations firm to help them handle the press. And so far, at least handling us, has meant to keep their office door closed.

I’ll keep you posted….negotiations continue.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics

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September 16, 2008

Palin: From PTA to VP nominee

Posted: 04:35 PM ET
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin greets supporters at a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada.
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin greets supporters at a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada.

Drew Griffin
CNN Special Investigations Unit

Immediately after Gov. Sarah Palin’s surprise unveiling as GOP vice presidential nominee - I was shocked that so many people – including pundits, e-mailers, talk show hosts and politicians - knew so much about her.

When I was given this assignment to produce an hour-long documentary on the Alaska governor, I had no idea who she was. To be perfectly honest I didn’t even know the governor of Alaska was a "she."

But apparently everyone else did, and they all had an opinion about her.

Of course the opinions were equally divided based on your political leanings. Democrats began e-mailing reporter types with their talking points: evil, vindictive, lightweight, a conservative Christian out to tell us how to breed, teach and read. In a word, dangerous.

Republican talking points included: outside-the-beltway, corruption fighter, executive experience. A real person grounded in family, country and apple pie. (Make that moose burgers). And, it turns out, the celebrity antidote to the Obama star factor.

Sarah Palin turns out to be much more human than either the Republicans or Democrats would have you believe.

What struck me most about Palin is how accidentally she fell into this business.

Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all deliberately entered politics as a career.

Palin entered the tiny world of her politics as a PTA mom-turned-city-council-member-turned mayor.

I am not naïve enough to believe she had no political ambition beyond Wasilla and the great state of Alaska.

But I am convinced her meteoric rise started with a mom’s simple involvement in her children schools. And if nothing else, that is refreshing in national politics.

What do you think? Use this blog to weigh in with your opinions on Sarah Palin.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics • Special Investigations Unit

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