A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

An Unlawful Congress?


Q: Have 84 members of Congress been arrested for drunk driving in the last year? Have seven been arrested for fraud?

A: We judge these statistics to be not credible. They originated nearly a decade ago with a Web site that still refuses to provide any proof or documentation, or even to name those accused.

FULL QUESTION

I just received this e-mail – is it true?

Is It NBA Or NFL?

[EET ]36
Have been accused of spousal abuse

7
Have been arrested for fraud

19
Have been accused of writing bad checks

117
Have directly or indirectly
Bankrupted at least 2 businesses

3
Have done time for assault

71,
Repeat…
71,
Cannot
Get a credit card due to bad credit

14
Have been arrested on drug-related charges

8
Have been arrested for shoplifting

21
Currently
Are defendants in lawsuits, and

84
Have been arrested for drunk driving
In
The last year

Can
You guess which organization this is?

Give up yet? . . Scroll down,

Neither,
it's the 535 members of the
United States Congress

The Same group of Idiots that crank out Hundreds of new laws each year Designed to keep the rest of us in line.

You Gotta pass this one on![/EET]

FULL ANSWER

We keep getting asked about this one, which has been going around for several years now in various forms. Our readers have plenty of reason to doubt its accuracy.

Update, Feb. 20, 2011: The website that originated these claims has withdrawn them. The series in which they originally appeared now makes no mention of them. Doug Thompson, proprietor of the Capitol Hill Blue site, wrote us to say:

Thompson: I removed the statistics from the series and let it stand on the cases cited with each members of Congress' name and the documentation surrounding the event. I did not double check the facts (which I should have done), nor did I write or edit the stories. But they are still my responsibility.

Red Flags

Just look at all the red flags flying here:

  • The author is anonymous. We have no reason to trust this nameless person, and no way to assess his or her truthfulness, competence or motive.

  • The author gives no source for any of these supposed statistics. The reader isn't told where they are coming from and has no way to check them out independently.

  • The author accuses dozens of members of Congress of shady or criminal wrongdoing without naming a single one of them. Again, no chance to check or verify.

  • The writer also gives no dates for any of these accusations, except for a vague reference to "last year." But since we don't know when this e-mail was written, "last year" could refer to 2007 or 2006 or (as it turns out) some much earlier year.

  • Some of the claims, given a little thought, are wildly implausible. If 84 members of Congress really had been "arrested for drunk driving in the last year" that would mean that, on average, one or two House and Senate members were being arrested each week of 2008. Why haven't we been seeing big headlines? Could all of the nation's reporters have missed such a juicy story?

  • The author claims to have highly confidential information. How does the author know that 71 House and Senate members "cannot get a credit card due to bad credit"? How would anyone know, unless they have power to subpoena private financial records?

The Source Revealed

The claims in this e-mail actually originate with a nearly 10-year-old series of articles on a Web site named "Capitol Hill Blue," which was founded by Doug Thompson, former director of the National Association of Realtors' political action committee and a former Republican political consultant. Earlier in his career, Thompson was a newspaper reporter in Roanoke, Virginia and Alton, Illinois. As we said in an earlier item, Capitol Hill Blue "has a history of relying on phony sources, retracting stories and apologizing to its readers." For details, see our "Ask FactCheck" item of Dec. 12, 2007.

In that item we looked into Thompson's claim, from anonymous sources, that President George W. Bush had "screamed" at his staff, "Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!" We said then: "We judge that the odds that the report is accurate hover near zero." And the odds are also very low that these statistics about members of Congress are accurate.

In Thompson's defense, the e-mail goes slightly beyond what he wrote. The e-mail claims that 36 members of Congress have been accused of spousal abuse, while Thompson put the number only at 29. And while the message claims that 84 House and Senate members were "arrested" for drunk driving, Thompson's article said that 84 "were stopped for drunken driving and released after they claimed Congressional immunity." He also added that "there is a big difference between being stopped for 'suspicion' of DUI [driving under the influence] and actually being charged with the offense." But he did not name the 29 accused spouse abusers or the 84 suspected drunks, or quote any law enforcement officials or cite any specific records in support of either claim. 

The e-mail also makes the claim that the various statistics apply to "the 535 members of … Congress" but doesn't say whether that's the current Congress or a previous one. Thompson said his original story referred to "members of current and recent Congresses" back to 1992 (except for the drunk driving claim which referred only to 1998). By and large, however, the figures that are circulating now were pulled, however carelessly, from Thompson's report.

He called his series "Congress: America's Criminal Class," and much of it reported straightforwardly on legal or ethical troubles of a few House and Senate members who were identified by name. Some were well-known cases going as far back as the 1960s. But the series also contained a few sensational paragraphs laying out numbers contained in this e-mail. And ever since, Thompson has steadfastly refused to document those numbers.

Where did he get them? For the record, here is what he stated in Part I of his series, dated Aug. 16, 1999:

Capitol Hill Blue, 1999: Over the past several months, researchers for Capitol Hill Blue have checked public records, past newspaper articles, civil court cases and criminal records of both current and recent members of the United States Congress (since 1992). We have talked with former associates and business partners who have been left out in the cold by people they thought were friends. …

All checks were made through public records. Our researchers were not allowed to break any laws or misrepresent themselves to obtain this information.

Where are the "Public" Records?

So if all this information is contained in "public records," then it should be a simple matter to cite specific sources and provide documentation. But Thompson rebuffed reporters who asked for such backup at the time his report was published. We contacted him recently, and he again declined to provide any documentation or to cite specific public sources. He still won't even name those he accused nearly 10 years ago.

Thompson told us in an e-mail sent April 18: "I've explained before that we did not run a list of names because we could not determine the outcome of all of the cases. Some civil and domestic matters are settled out of court and the settlements are sealed. Some were dropped. We ran the numbers to show a pattern."

We find that explanation hard to accept. For one thing, Thompson claimed to know the outcome in some categories. For example, he wrote then: "Our research found 117 current and recent members of the House and Senate who have run at least two businesses each that went bankrupt, often leaving business partners and creditors holding the bag." Now he won't say who the 117 are. So there is no way to check on the accuracy of his claim.

Says Thompson: "I'm proud of that series and I stand by every fact and item used in it." The fact remains, he won't document the numbers.

Footnote: Mangling Mark Twain

Thompson took the title of his series from a famous witticism by author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. But Thompson got the quote wrong.

He led off the series with these words: "America, Mark Twain once said, is a nation without a distinct criminal class 'with the possible exception of Congress.' "

What Twain actually wrote was this: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

You don't have to take our word for it. Unlike Thompson and the anonymous authors of viral e-mails, we cite our sources and link you to them whenever possible so you can check them out for yourself. Twain's quip appears as a heading to Chapter VIII of his 1897 book, "Following the Equator," and he attributed it to his fictional character Pudd'nhead Wilson. The full text of Twain's book, no longer covered by copyright, is available online at the Gutenberg Project.

-Brooks Jackson

Sources

Jackson, Brooks. "Did President Bush call the Constitution a "goddamned piece of paper?" FactCheck.org. 12 Dec 2007.

Thompson, Doug. "Congress: America's Criminal Class" Parts 1-V. Capitol Hill Blue Web site, 16 – 20 Aug 1999 (accessed 21 April 2009).

Thompson, Doug. Interview with author via e-mail, 18 – 21 April 2009.

Twain, Mark (Samuel Clemens). "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar." Qtd. in Twain, "Following the Equator," 1897. Project Gutenberg EBook edition released 18 Aug 2006.