17-term congressman goes on trial for selling his influence

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — He is a powerful congressman accused of selling influence for $100,000 in trinkets, travel and law school tuition for his son, a man who believes the government he has served for more than three decades has turned against him.
More than four years after 17-term Rep. Joseph M. McDade was indicted on charges of racketeering, conspiracy and accepting illegal gratuities, he went on trial today. Potential jurors filled out questionnaires as jury selection began in U.S. District Court.
If convicted, the 64-year-old Pennsylvanian would face up to 34 years in prison, a $1.25 million fine and the loss of his seat in the House, where, except for the indictment, the 1994 Republican sweep would likely have elevated him to chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Plane flights, golfing accessories, tickets to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament and $7,500 in scholarships for his son are among gifts and campaign contributions McDade is accused of accepting from 1983 through 1988 in return for help in securing $68 million worth of business for government contractors.
When McDade entered Congress in 1963, the anthracite coal mines were abandoned, the locomotive factories were shut and unemployment was rampant in his Northeast Pennsylvania district.
Two years later, he joined the Appropriations Committee. He quickly grew adept at bringing his northeastern Pennsylvania district millions of dollars in grants and contracts by nurturing the local electronics and communications industry, much of it focused on defense business.
He crafted a formula for success using constituent service and pork projects, and voters have sent him back to Washington over and over — twice since his May 1992 indictment.
“Everyone in town knows Joe McDade,” said J.A. Panuska, president of the University of Scranton. “This has been a depressed area. Now it’s in a period of dramatic rejuvenation. Joe was full of ideas on how the community could recoup economically.”
In Washington, the Republican has a reputation among colleagues as trustworthy and knowledgeable, as an old-fashioned pol who advances only his constituents’ interests, not his own.
“For 30 years, he has never asked for anything for himself,” Scranton Mayor James P. Connors said. “I know a lot of politicians and business people, and nobody ever, ever heard him do anything improper.”
But watchdog groups point to McDade’s old-fashioned tactics as precisely the problem. “McDade’s a representative of the old guard. The reason he came to Washington was to loot the Treasury and send it to the constituents,” said Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based critic of pork-barrel politics.
McDade’s attorneys fought to keep the case from coming to trial, originally arguing that the Constitution shields members of Congress from being prosecuted for legislative acts.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument, which was based on a constitutional provision that says members of Congress “shall not be questioned in any other place” for any “speech or debate in either House.”
A year ago, the defense argued the indictment should be dismissed because prosecutors had no authority to enforce House rules of conduct and were encroaching on legislative turf. That argument also was rejected.
McDade had no Republican challenger for 14 years and regularly trounced his Democratic opponents, but his resiliency has shown signs of fraying under the weight of the charges and general negative attitudes toward longtime politicians.
In April, a political newcomer came within about 2,000 votes of defeating McDade in the Republican primary. Should McDade return to Congress next year, he will be the most senior Republican in the House. A verdict is likely by summer’s end.
“If he’s convicted, I think he’s out for all practical purposes,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Millersville University. “If he’s found innocent, it’s going to be very hard to beat him.”