By Joe Conason
If a single politician can be said to epitomize the current pathology of Capitol Hill, that symbolic statesman might very well be Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), whose notoriety blossomed recently when federal agents raided the Philadelphia home of his daughter in a criminal investigation. He stands for everything that, until now at least, was considered normal and acceptable in Congress—and he seems genuinely offended that anyone would question his integrity and judgment.
The 59-year-old congressman’s public career began modestly enough in suburban Philadelphia, where he first won office as a local official more than two decades ago. With the accumulation of seniority and the shift in power to his party, he acquired influence in Washington and a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, which meant that he could bring home plenty of pork. He traveled abroad, especially to Russia and Central Europe, and took an interest in defense and energy issues. He also provided some nice fat slabs of bacon for his family and friends.
The case now under investigation by the Justice Department involves his daughter Karen, who founded a lobbying outfit called Solutions North America in 2002, along with Charles Sexton, a prominent local Republican leader and former Weldon campaign operative. Their first client happened to be Itera Corp., a Moscow-based energy firm whose owners enjoy the patronage of Gazprom, the enormous state-owned energy conglomerate.
That was an interesting coincidence, because Weldon met with the principals of Itera on a congressional visit four months before his daughter’s firm won the million-dollar lobbying contract, and because the congressman performed several favors for Itera in the week before the contract was signed. He personally demanded that the U.S. Department of Energy award an $868,000 grant to Itera, and hosted a Washington dinner for Itera executives where they were introduced to more than 20 members of Congress.
The following year, Solutions North America acquired a few more intriguing clients. In January 2003, Karen and her dad reportedly visited Saratov Aviation, a Russian aerospace firm, which hired Solutions North America on a $20,000 monthly retainer. And behold, the congressman soon called the Naval Air Systems Command to promote Saratov’s products—which reportedly include a flying saucer—leading to a federal contract for the Russian company.
Around the same time, in spring 2003, a pair of shady Serb businessmen named Dragomir and Bogoljub Karic retained Solutions North America for $20,000 a month. As cronies of the late Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic, the wealthy Karic brothers had reportedly been unable to obtain American visas. Weldon interceded on their behalf with both the State Department and the CIA.
According to Weldon, however, those facts aren’t worthy of scrutiny. “My daughter doesn’t need my help,” he said after news of the federal raid broke. “My kids are successful; they’re talented.” Karen Weldon must be very talented indeed. Aside from her parental affiliation, she had no relevant experience, but the boys from Itera thought she was worth half a million bucks.
The Weldon family and friends are not a mere lobbying firm, but an industry unto themselves.
The congressman’s other daughter, Kim, performs public-relations work for AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of the Italian defense company Finmecannica, which last year won a contract (with his help) to build a new version of Marine One, the presidential chopper. The congressman’s close friend Cecilia Grimes, whose resume features suburban real estate sales, also suddenly opened a lobbying business in 2003. Her clients include another Finmecannica subsidiary and several smaller firms seeking defense contracts overseen by Rep. Weldon’s subcommittee. Grimes has achieved striking successes on their behalf, totaling more than $43 million in Navy contracts and congressional funding.
Confronted by the press after the FBI raid, Weldon solemnly explained that he and his family are merely victims of a frame-up by scheming liberal Democrats. He has spent much of his career promoting conspiracy theories and international intrigues, often talking as if he thinks the rest of us are willing to believe just about anything.
He stands before the cameras and declares that there is nothing “unusual” in these grimy deals. And, of course, he’s right. He isn’t alone in encouraging his relatives to cash in on the public trust with lobbying contracts and earmarks, and he certainly isn’t alone in permitting the plunder of the Treasury. But perhaps the voters of his district, in their wisdom, will finally decide that two decades of business as usual is enough.
To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.