WASHINGTON – The Federal Elections Commission said this week there was “no reason to believe” that lobbyist and Maryland congressional candidate Terry Lierman violated election laws when he made a $25,000 low-interest loan to Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., in 1999.
The loan made headlines just days before the 2000 election, in which Lierman had been running neck-and-neck with seven-term incumbent Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda. Lierman, a Democrat, ended up losing with 46 percent of the vote, but it was still the closest any challenger has come to unseating Morella.
Lierman could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but he has defended the loan to Moran, saying it was not a campaign contribution, but an instance of one friend helping another.
A spokesman for Moran said the six-term congressman from Northern Virginia was pleased with the ruling, which became public Monday.
“He (Moran) stated at the time that this was an arm’s-length transaction with Mr. Lierman,” said the spokesman, Paul Reagan. “He was in no way influenced by the loan in his official actions.”
The ruling stemmed from an October complaint filed by the National Legal and Policy Center, which charged that Lierman exceeded allowable campaign limits with the loan and that Moran failed to report the money as a contribution.
At the time, Lierman was a registered lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough. Within days of the loan agreement, Moran co-sponsored legislation to help Schering-Plough keep a lucrative patent for an allergy medicine, Claritin.
Moran said at the time that the loan was OK’d by the House Ethics Committee, and he noted that the pharmaceutical bill in question had 77 co- sponsors. He also said the agreement called for him to pay back the loan with interest.
Critics charged that Lierman bought Moran’s influence. But the six-member FEC, at the urging of its general counsel, voted unanimously on July 17 that there was no reason to believe any violation of elections law had occurred, said commission spokeswoman Kelly Huff.
She said the commission did not comment on its decision, which was released Monday to the public.
But National Legal and Policy Center Chairman Kenneth Boehm insisted the loan was improper.
“If lobbyists are allowed to give personal loans to candidates in secret, the public interest goes right out the window,” said Boehm. “You might as well be allowed to give the suitcases stuffed with cash for legislative favors.
“Ultimately, the public is going to lose confidence in the integrity of the system,” Boehm said.
The Congressional Accountability Project also called for investigations of the Lierman loan, but the Justice Department dropped its investigation in June and the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct refuses to say whether it has — or will — take up the issue.
The committee’s rules prohibit it from revealing whether it is looking into an allegation of ethics violations. Investigations become public only if the committee creates a special investigative subcommittee, but that has not happened in the Lierman case.
Committee rules also require that a House member initiate a probe, so anyone outside Congress must get the ear of a member before an investigation can take place.
Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said he would not be surprised if the committee does nothing.
“We’re looking for a single member of the House with enough backbone to call for an investigation,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. “Unfortunately, Congress is peopled with a sea of midgets.”