February 15, 2006 | Issue 42•07
WASHINGTON, DC—In the wake of several major lobbying scandals, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics announced Tuesday that it will hold a special series of intensive sessions inside its recently completed 200-room Ethics Mansion
See the ethics committee's mountain estate:
"In this time of rampant corruption, it is essential that we have a sufficiently lavish setting in which to enforce laws that ensure the integrity of public officials," said committee member Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), wearing a gold-lined cashmere robe donated by pharmaceutical lobbyists.
The mansion, a sprawling neo-Gothic manor located on 4,500 acres just off Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, was completed last month. Adorned with gold plumbing fixtures and 16th-century Flemish tapestries, the estate boasts three tennis courts, two Olympic-size swimming pools, nearly a dozen hot tubs, both dry and wet saunas, a massage center and day spa, an 18-hole golf course, a helipad, and the only erotica-themed topiary garden on the East Coast.
Committee members say the isolated environment allows them to tackle weighty ethical issues without the distractions, temptations, and conflicts of interest that pervade Washington culture.
"When one needs to ruminate on, say, improper gift-giving to government officials by corporations or corrupt foreign officials, it's in the public interest to do so in a quiet retreat," said chairman of the ethics committee Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), sitting in an overstuffed leather armchair provided by the Ohio Beef Council. "Ideally with an 83-year-old scotch and a good Cuban cigar in hand."
Due to the rigor of the extended sessions, several members of the ethics committee have sequestered themselves in the Ethics Mansion's private suites, where they are isolated from their families and assisted only by the mansion's staff of well-trained servants.
Certain wings of the mansion were designed to remind senators of the significance of their duties.
"If we want to contemplate the role of religion in secular politics, we have a beautiful, gold-trimmed private chapel in which to do so, kindly provided by the Boston diocese of the Catholic Church," Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) said.
The thorny question of lobbyist gift-giving is posed in the Evidence Wing, where lobbyists have voluntarily come forward with hundreds of millions of dollars in ethics-violation-related evidence, including ermine coats, Aston Martin sports cars, and attaché cases filled with cash.
The committee, which is currently addressing allegations that individual senators have been unduly influenced by the Recording Industry Association of America, has been debating the question at length in its fully equipped library and home theater.
Senate ethics-committee members Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Ken Salazar (D-CO) reflect on important issues of political integrity.
"It's crucial that we be able to review all the evidence in Sony's bribery case in a grand theater with high-definition 5.1 surround-sound, the Ethics Girls, and state-of-the-art digital projection," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). "Here on Ethics Hill, we spare no expense in the fight against ethics violations."
Funds for the ethics-deliberation facility were provided by a broad coalition of K Street lobbyists and special-interest groups, which the committee has fined a staggering $920 million since 2002, of which $375 million was used to build and outfit the estate.
Surprisingly, the fines were not levied through court order but donated voluntarily.
"For us, it's an investment in the public trust," said tobacco lobbyist Clayton Dempsey, whose years of experience with ethics-committee investigations related to influence-peddling and involvement in campaign-finance improprieties were of great value to the committee.
In January, the committee subpoenaed embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for an aggressive interrogation and golf outing on the estate's course.
Although some government watchdog groups opposed the construction of the lavish mansion, committee members say it is vital to their work.
"An ethics case involving, say, a major South African mining interest can be very complex, with many facets—like this beautiful diamond," Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY) said, holding a plum-size diamond aloft.
He added: "You need to take the time to turn it over in your hand and pore over its every exquisite detail before you can ever hope to understand it."