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Dems Should Dump Ethically Challenged Harry Reid

By Dennis Byrne

Instead of talking in sweeping platitudes about "ethics reform," Senate Democrats might want to prove they mean it by dumping their ethically challenged majority leader, Harry Reid.

The Nevada lawmaker has been implicated in yet another land scheme that this time could net him a tidy $50,000 to $290,000. Los Angeles Times investigative reporters Chuck Neubauer and Tom Hamburger, this week revealed that Reid paid $166 an acre for valuable northern Arizona land whose market value, according to the county assessor, four years ago was worth $2,144 an acre.

Who would be a big enough fool to sell Reid the land at such a ludicrously low price? A long-time pal who would financially benefit from some obscure legislation that the senator has often sponsored.

It worked like this, according to the Times:

In 2002, Reid (D-Nev.) paid $10,000 to a pension fund controlled by Clair Haycock, a Las Vegas lubricants distributor and his friend of 50 years. The payment gave the senator full control of a 160-acre parcel in Bullhead City that Reid and the pension fund had jointly owned. Reid's price for the equivalent of 60 acres of undeveloped desert was less than one-tenth of the value the assessor placed on it at the time.

Six months after the deal closed, Reid introduced legislation [which failed to pass] to address the plight of lubricants dealers who had their supplies disrupted by the decisions of big oil companies. It was an issue the Haycock family had brought to Reid's attention in 1994, according to a source familiar with the events.

If Reid were to sell the property for any of the various estimates of its value, his gain on the $10,000 investment could range from $50,000 to $290,000.

It is a potential violation of congressional ethics standards for a member to accept anything of value -- including a real estate discount -- from a person with interests before Congress.

Reed apparently prefers to put his gains into dry desert land instead of into cold cash, as did Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), whom the FBI said was harboring $90,000 in marked bills in his home freezer.

Last year the Associated Press disclosed that Reid "collected a $1.1 windfall on a Las Vegas land sale, even though he hadn't personally owned the property for three years." The deal was "engineered by Jay Brown, a longtime friend and former casino lawyer whose name surfaced in a major political bribery trial [last year] and in other organized crime investigations."

Reid and his office have denied any improprieties in these matters. Reid's spokesman noted that the transaction was "a sale, not a gift." The wording of the denial is interesting because Reid is co-sponsoring legislation that would ban "gifts" from lobbyists - or their clients - to lawmakers or their staffs. Reid himself touted that legislation in a Jan. 9 press release, "Reid: The Senate is committed to tough new ethics reform."

In a press release a day earlier ("Senate Democrats highlight commitment to tough new ethics reform"), Reid proclaimed: "The American people demanded change, and Democrats are ready to deliver. The new Democratic Senate is committed to giving American (sic) a government as good--and as honest--as the people it serves. The Senate will start with legislation that is good, and working together, we'll improve it to make it even better. In the end, the Senate will pass the most sweeping reforms since Watergate."

This is exactly the kind of hypocrisy, from both parties, that turns off so many Americans. It a word, it makes Americans vomit.

Let it not go by unnoticed that claiming and getting full credit for this brand of Democratic "ethics reform" is the luminous Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama of Illinois. "Now that the dust has settled and the new Congress is underway," he intoned, "we need to get down to business and show Americans that we are responding to their call for change. We now have the opportunity to give the American people what they deserve and demanded in November--real ethics and lobbying reform that holds their elected officials to the highest ethical standards."

This is from a senator who tromped around Africa, trailed by an adoring throng of media panderers, who condemned corruption there, but had nothing to say about the graft pervading his hometown and state. Quite the contrary, Obama last week endorsed Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for re-election this spring, even though the suspected, indicted and convicted percolate through his administration like water through a coffee-maker.

You've got to hand it to Reid. With a record like his, to claim that he is the champion of a new day of congressional ethics takes a lot of brass. He could prove it by resigning. Or Democrats could prove it by giving him the heave-ho as majority leader.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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