Lawmakers Who Were Caught Breaking The Law

If you've watched the news recently, you've probably seen some politician mingling power and profit, or stepping far outside the lines of basic human decency. In fact, some say we're living in a golden age of political corruption. Way to go, America. The U.S. Corruption Barometer 2017 showed that "almost 7 out of 10 people believe the government is failing to fight corruption, up from half in 2016."

But while the president has been taking the brunt of the criticism, Congress has been quietly breaking a bunch of laws too. In fact, candidates accused of crimes were big winners in the 2018 midterms, which might explain why only 21% of adults surveyed approve of the job they're doing. But, while things are bad, the truth is that Congress has always been a bit corrupt. If there's a law, chances are some lawmaker has broken it. Just because you're the ones responsible for making the rules doesn't mean you have to like them, as the politicians on this list prove.

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was a child molester

He was the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House in our nation's history. He was also a child molester. The fact that both of those things can be true is deeply disturbing, to say the least. Oddly, Dennis Hastert would go down for his crimes on a technicality, years after he was done serving in Congress. It was the cover-up that got him caught, specifically his pay-off of a former victim, identified as "Individual A," in installments of $50,000 every six weeks. The FBI noticed the odd payments, and when they questioned him, the whole scheme unraveled.

The Feds quickly discovered that, while working as a high school wrestling coach in the '60s and '70s, Mr. Hastert molested at least four of the students under his charge. He somehow kept those secrets throughout his rise to political power, but was caught when he agreed to pay $3.5 million to a former student "to compensate for and keep confidential his prior misconduct against Individual A." The statute of limitations on the original crimes had expired, so Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in prison for illegally structuring bank withdrawals rather than for his more horrific deeds. Still, it was all taken into account. "The defendant is a serial child molester," said Judge Thomas M. Durkin of Federal District Court. "Some actions can obliterate a lifetime of good works. Nothing is more stunning than having 'serial child molester' and 'speaker of the House' in the same sentence."

Rep. Michael Grimm threatens reporter before going to jail

"Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again, I'll throw you off this [expletive] balcony." Those were the words Rep. Michael Grimm directed at NY1 reporter Michael Scotto when asked about his legal indiscretions back in 2014. Unfortunately for Grimm, he'd soon be asked similar questions, this time by the FBI. They, apparently, didn't like his answers. 

In a 20-count indictment, Mr. Grimm was accused of keeping two sets of records at a restaurant he owned, concealing more than $1 million in gross receipts, and failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in employee wages. He eventually pled guilty to a single count of tax fraud, and was sentenced to eight months in prison, initially refusing to step down from Congress even as he prepared to go to jail. Loretta Lynch, then the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said, "with today's guilty plea, Michael Grimm has admitted that while running his business he chose lies and deception over honest dealings with federal and state authorities as well as his own employees." 

Rep. Mel Reynolds was taken down by lurid scandal

In many ways, Mel Reynolds embodies the best and the worst of America. Here was a man who pulled himself up from extreme poverty to become a Rhodes Scholar and a United States Congressman, only to fall prey to his darker impulses. It all came apart in August of 1994, when a former campaign worker came forward with lurid details of late night phone calls she claimed had happened when she was just 16 years old. 

Reynolds initially denied the charges, saying it was a setup, and that the accuser "would do anything that people with white skin and blond hair and blue eyes told her to." But during his trial, prosecutors played tapes of phone sex sessions that proved the accuser was telling the truth. He was convicted of sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, child pornography, and obstruction of justice, and was forced to step down from Congress.

Far from being the end of his problems, Reynolds was later arrested on pornography charges in Zimbabwe. He would claim that the dictator Robert Mugabe had personally set him up, but the waters would grow muddy when he admitted to being in the country to bribe the African despot. He was soon arrested again back in the States for tax evasion, and was sent back to prison in 2018. Following his sentencing, a defiant Reynolds said, "I am going to go home to Africa. I've given up on America."

Reps. Dan Rostenkowski and Joe Kolter tried to embezzle House funds through stamps

Have two congressmen ever been taken down for a more bizarre reason than Reps. Dan Rostenkowski and Joe Kolter? Their notorious cash-for-stamps scam came to light in 1991, when it became clear that hundred of House members had written upwards of 24,000 overdrafts to their personal accounts without paying any interest or financial penalty. This would lead investigators down a rabbit hole of graft within the House chambers, of which Rostenkowski and Kotler were two of the biggest culprits. Their con was so simple, it's almost surprising more crooked congressmen didn't try it. The two men would return taxpayer funded stamps to the House post office for cash, and then use the money as a personal piggy bank. That's it. 

Kotler pulled this scam to the tune of $40,000 before getting caught. Rostenkowski, who showed little remorse at the time, wracked up a $55,000 bill of his own. He eventually pled guilty to taking merchandise from the House Stationary Store and passing it around to friends like taxpayer-funded swag. He also put some of his subordinates to work for him in a personal capacity, including hiring a staffer to act as his daughter's wedding photographer for $20,000 of public money. In the end, Kolter received six months in prison for his crimes, while Dan Rostenkowski served 17 months before receiving a pardon from President Bill Clinton. 

Abscam sting busted numerous congressmen and became a movie

When the FBI enlisted con artist Melvin Weinberg as an informant in the winter of 1978, they had no way of knowing they'd soon be taking down six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, one U.S. senator, a New Jersey mayor, and host of other government officials. Fortune may favor the foolish, but this investigation managed to take down a lot of fools.

In a nutshell, Weinberg posed as an American investor representing a wealthy despot named Kambir Abdul Rahman, looking to get his hands on stolen securities and forged certificates of deposit. But when Weinberg got Mayor Angelo Errichetti of Camden, New Jersey, to approve a casino license in exchange for $400,000, the scam took off. Suddenly, the investigation was rife with bribable officials who would do just about anything for a buck. The Feds started taping the illicit meetings, and used the evidence to obtain 19 convictions on a host of charges. Six congressmen were convicted and numerous others resigned, were defeated at the polls or expelled by the House. This wild story of con men and crazy Feds would later be turned into the Oscar-nominated movie American Hustle.

Sen. Ted Kennedy left a woman to drown

In one fateful moment, a life was lost, a political career derailed, and an American dynasty's streak of tragedy deepened. It was late in the night of July 18, 1969, by the time Senator Ted Kennedy took off for a drive with 28-year-old campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne. Whether they were headed to the ferry which connected the tiny island of Chappaquiddick to the mainland or to somewhere more illicit, as some have claimed, will never be known. What is known is that at some point in the evening the black Oldsmobile Kennedy was driving plunged off the Dike Bridge and into the cold water.  

Kennedy maintained that he dove "into the strong and murky current but succeeded only in increasing [his] state of utter exhaustion and alarm." He rushed back to the cottage where he was staying, returning with two men, but they were unable to reach the woman. What most people have found troubling is that they didn't report the accident until the next morning, long after anything could have been done to reach Ms. Kopechne. Rumors of inebriation and infidelity have been linked to the incident from the start, but no clear picture has ever emerged of what happened. Kennedy was eventually charged with leaving the scene of an accident, instead of a more serious involuntary manslaughter charge, due to a lack of evidence. He received a suspended sentence, along with a temporary driving ban, and decided not to run for president in 1972, as many had expected he would.

Sen. Larry Craig's anti-gay fervor caught up with him

At the time of his arrest, Larry Craig was a three-term senator with a rather forceful anti-gay bent. It came as a bit of a shock, then, when an undercover cop busted him for soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom. How, you may ask, does one do that in a major municipal transportation hub? Well, it seems it's as simple as having a wide stance, according to the oh-so-hypocritical senator. Based on the arrest report, however, Craig tapped the officer's foot with his own, and "proceeded to swipe his hand under the stall divider several times," which was a signal that he was looking for a lot more than a potty break. That's when the cop displayed his badge beneath the stall.

Craig would go on to plead guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, and then tell no one of the incident until Roll Call broke the story a month later. Cornered, the Senator then held a press conference in which he denied any wrongdoing, said it was a mistake to plead guilty, and forcefully stated, "Let me be clear: I am not gay, I never have been gay." He actually managed to serve out his term before retiring from politics, but the legal issues haunted him. He later dipped into his campaign's coffers to pay for his effort to get the guilty verdict overturned, and was ordered to pay a hefty fine.

Rep. James Traficant kicked out of House

As The Washington Post described, Rep. James Traficant was larger than life. A politician, "known for wearing cowboy boots, skinny ties, and out-of-date polyester suits and for a bouffant mound of hair that seemed to defy gravity." Unfortunately for him, his career didn't have the same buoyancy as his style. He was only the second congressman to be expelled from the House since the Civil War. 

His crimes were legion, from bribery to tax evasion. He would also use government employees on his farm to bail hay and work on his boat, then he would somehow order them to return a portion of their salary to him each month. Despite a litany of charges, the eccentric politician thought it was a good idea to represent himself in court. "I'm going to look them right in the eye and go at them," he told CNN. "I'm just the son of a truck driver, and I'm going to try and kick their ass." And yet, even after spending seven years in prison, his constituents still loved him. One voter, Karen Worstell, told NPR that, "If he'd ever run for office again, I would have voted for him because I knew what kind of politics he was; he was honest with the people. It was the people, not the government, it was the people."

Rep. Greg Gianforte reelected after body slamming reporter

Chances are, Rep. Greg Gianforte didn't want a reminder of that time he was brought up on assault charges. He certainly wouldn't want that in the heat of a campaign. But when you have a president with a WWE career, well, things slip out. That's how Gianforte found himself the center of attention at a Trump rally, with the president exalting, "any guy who can do a body slam, he is my type!"

The body slam in question came in 2017, after Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs asked the Montana congressman about the CBO score for the Republicans' healthcare bill. Not wanting to answer, he instead attacked the reporter, who wisely captured the whole thing on an audio recording. After a scuffle, Jacobs can be heard to say, "you just body-slammed me and broke my glasses." Alicia Acuna, a Fox News reporter, wrote that she witnessed as Gianforte, "grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him... I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching." The congressman pled guilty, receiving community service and anger management counseling, which apparently impressed his constituents — they re-elected him in 2018 to serve in congress.

Randy "Duke" Cunningham broke the bribery record

To get an idea of how corrupt Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was, just know that he had an official "bribe menu," written up on congressional stationary. $140,000 and a luxury yacht for a $16 million Defense Department contract, and an additional $50,000 bribe for every $1 million in contract value. This was no little fly-by-night scheme. This was a criminal enterprise, one that would become the biggest in the House's history. He achieved these record-breaking crimes from his perch on the House Appropriations and Intelligence committees, which he used to steer lucrative contracts to those with the means to finance his lavish lifestyle. 

And what a lifestyle it was, complete with yachts, French antiques, Persian rugs, and a fleet of Rolls Royces. By the time The San Diego Union-Tribune uncovered the graft in 2005, Cunningham had collected millions of dollars in bribes. He was eventually convicted of tax evasion and conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud, and sentenced to seven years in prison, the longest prison sentence ever given to a member of Congress up to that time. That record would only last four years, because there's always another lawmaker ready to break laws.