Republican Rep. John Sweeney (NY-20) is on the defensive and complaining about it.
For the first time since he was elected to congress to replace Rep. Gerald Solomon in 1998, Sweeney has a real challenge on his hands in the person of Democratic candidate Kirsten Gillibrand of Hudson, NY.
Sweeney has recently been working hard to get his name in the papers. First, complaining about the disarray amongst his fellow Republicans in New York and most recently calling for the heads of the Republican leadership in Washington in the wake of the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay-Grover Norquist bribery and corruption scandal.
Sweeney had called for elections of all Republican House leadership positions. He quickly retreated from his call to replace Speaker Dennis Hastert and has instead circulated a petition calling for a vote on all leadership positions below Speaker.
But no sooner had Sweeney, known for his defense of the indicted Tom DeLay and his close ties to Bush's inner circle, begun circulating his petition, loudly proclaiming his mantle of reformer and the Republicans need for "soul searching," then he jetted off to Park City, Utah for a "Skiing with Sweeney" weekend, a $2,000 event that included dinner at the home of Jeffrey Kimbell, a pharmaceutical lobbyist. His second annual "Skiing with Sweeney" weekend.
"An invitation to the "Skiing With Sweeney" event notes the congressman's membership on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It asks for a contribution of $2,000, which didn't cover trip expenses. The invitation noted a block room rate of $349 per night was available at the Hotel Park City, where rooms typically run more than $500.
According to the invitation, attendees were to check in last Thursday, ski on Friday and then go to dinner at the home of Jeff Kimbell, whose D.C. lobbying firm, Jeffrey J. Kimbell & Associates, lists among its clients pharmaceutical heavyweights like Novartis and Allergan.
Another day of skiing was to follow Saturday; on Sunday, participants were to return home."
The Democratic challenger for the 20th district seat in Congress this year, Kirsten Gillibrand, who grew up in the Albany area, has made accountability and responsibility main planks in her campaign in light of the Republican corruption scandals in the House and Sweeney's lack of attention to his own district and constituents.
"Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic attorney who hopes to unseat Sweeney this fall, criticized the congressman for the event, saying the fact that it came on the heels of his call for change demonstrates he's not serious about reform. Gillibrand's campaign manager, Bill Hyers, pointed out New York has "a lot of great skiing" and questioned why Sweeney went to Utah to raise money."
Caught defenseless, the Sweeney campaign attempted to swing back at the challenger...
"Sweeney spokeswoman Melissa Carlson called those barbs "malicious, self-serving, and hypocritical." She said Gillibrand had "chosen the low road in her first campaign for office in a district she barely knows, for people she's never met, for reasons we may never know."
Gillibrand, who served as Special Counsel to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Andrew Cuomo during the Clinton administration and is a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, one of the premier law firms in the United States, grew up in the area and has deep family ties throughout the capital district of New York. Since coming home a couple years ago she has made it a point to travel to every town and hold open forums around the district every few weeks. She will continue this throughout the campaign and has pledged that if elected she will continue to hold open forums as a way for her constituents to be heard and to hold her accountable.
John Sweeney, who has been in office as the representative of the district since 1998, rarely makes it out of Saratoga County and has never been seen in most of the towns of the 10 county district. Sweeney did not live in the district when he first ran for office. Constituents had to chase Sweeney down and force him to hold a public event in order to hear their concerns about the Republican proposed dismantling of Social Security. Even then his handlers attempted to control who could participate in the one event he held. Constituents held their own forums on the topic to which he was invited but he declined to meet with them. Sweeney has also made a career of strong arm tactics playing a lead role in the 2000 Presidential recount fiasco by giving the order to "Shut it down"that lead to the mob action that was the worst aspect of that whole sorry episode.
"John Sweeney may talk reform, but his actions speak much louder than his words," Hyers said. "As a career politician he may think he can get away with saying one thing and doing another, but New Yorkers have had enough."
Sweeney's actions have garnered him a flurry of criticism from Democrats and local good government groups....
"Five Democratic county chairs from Sweeney's district and state Democratic Chairman Herman "Denny" Farrell Jr. wrote an open letter to the Clifton Park Republican asking why he went to Utah last weekend when New York has some of the nation's "finest ski resorts."
"Your decision to spend a weekend frolicking in Utah with lobbyists instead of here on the slopes in New York sends a terrible message and does nothing to encourage the all-important tourist industry here," wrote Farrell and the county chairs of the Washington, Essex, Saratoga, Greene and Warren Democratic parties.
Citizen Action of New York, a coalition of community and labor groups that has been critical of Sweeney, wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter on behalf of the "struggling families" in his district asking him to reconsider his support of budget cuts and tax breaks for those wealthy enough to afford skiing."
His actions also earned him a strong rebuke in the Albany Times Union today:
"There was Mr. Sweeney, a Clifton Park Republican, soliciting money last weekend on a Utah ski holiday where access to power was literally for sale.
Not very subtle, especially when the invitation to this gathering so crassly noted that Mr. Sweeney is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls a big portion of the fruits of access to government."
Sweeney, who has not been directly implicated in the Abramoff scandal, is yet one of those who...
"Just two weeks ago... was among a stampede of congressmen, Republicans and Democrats alike, who couldn't get rid of their otherwise zealously collected campaign contributions fast enough. Any money connected, in any way, to lobbyist-turned-felon Jack Abramoff or any of his evermore suspicious associates wasn't worth keeping. It instead went to charity -- $2,000 to St. Jude's Research Hospital, in Mr. Sweeney's case."
Except that the Times Union is incorrect in stating... "Any money connected, in any way, to lobbyist-turned-felon Jack Abramoff or any of his evermore suspicious associates...." The fact of the matter is that Mr. Sweeney's $2,000 divestment only represented the money received from Indian tribal clients that were being taken for a ride by Mr. Abramoff. Mr. Sweeney, along with the rest of his Republican colleagues in Congress... including Speaker Dennis Hastert who Sweeney backed off from challenging... have yet to take action to divest themselves of the money from Abramoff's... "evermore suspicious associates."
In the case of John Sweeney there has been no divestment of, nor explanation for, the following contributions that show up on his FEC filings:
Edwin Buckham, Alexander Strategy Group, 9/29/05, $500
Edwin Buckham, Alexander Strategy Group, 9/30/05, $200
Michael Mihalke, Alexander Strategy Group, 8/9/05, $100
Michael Mihalke, Alexander Strategy Group, 8/9/05, $2,100
Michael Mihalke, Alexander Strategy Group, 6/13/05, $2,000
Daniel Gans, Alexander Strategy Group, 6/13/05, $1,000
Allison Shulman, Alexander Strategy Group, 6/13/05, $250
Greenberg Traurig PAC, 3/31/05, $1000
Greenberg Traurig PAC, 9/12/05, $1,500
Greenberg Traurig PAC, 9/22/05, $500
Karl Reichelt, Greenberg Traurig, 3/14/05, $250
Karl Reichelt, Greenberg Traurig, 6/13/05, $250
Karl Reichelt, Greenberg Traurig, 9/12/05, $500
J. Daniel Walsh, Greenberg Traurig, 9/12/05, $250
TYCO International PAC, 6/13/05. $1,000
Preston Gates Ellis Roouvelas Meeds PAC, 6/28/05, $1,000
Alexander Strategy Group is the lobbying firm run by former Tom DeLay staffers, Ed Buckham and Tony Rudy, that announced that it would be closing operations in the wake of the Abramoff guilty plea. The plea deal with Abramoff gives all the appearance that indictments of Mr. Buckham and his associates will be forthcoming.
Greenberg Traurig is one of the lobbying firms that Jack Abramoff was using as a front for his bribery and corruption enterprise. Preston, Gates, Ellis is another.
TYCO International, that model of responsible corporate behavior, has recently revealed that it hired Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig during this time to lobby congress on their behalf.
As they said in the Times Union editorial...
Mr. Sweeney's office promises that his next report to the Federal Election Commission will disclose who -- as in which lobbyists -- attended the Utah fundraising event. That ought to make for some interesting reading.
As with skiing with lobbyists, we have yet to hear what Mr. Sweeney has to say about these contributions and his relationship to the companies and individuals involved. There too, his explanations "ought to make for some interesting reading."
FEC reports also show that at a minimum 40% of Mr. Sweeney's contributions throughout his career, continuing to his latest reports, come from PAC's, lobbyists, and other political committee's. Ms. Gillibrand reported 97% of her fund raising has come from individuals.
If you would like to be one of those individuals and help remove yet one more member of a bought and paid for congress please visit Kirsten Gillibrand at her web site and consider contributing while you are there.