On December 20, The Washington Post ran a lengthy piece questioning the relationship between Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, the ranking Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate's D.C. appropriations subcommittee until a year ago, and Dallas-based Voyager Expanded Learning. According to the story, Voyager's founder, Randy Best, raised $30,000 for Landrieu during an October 2001 fund-raiser at his Turtle Creek condo -- and Landrieu in turn helped push through Voyager's program aimed at teaching Washington, D.C., kindergartners and first-graders how to read. This, despite the fact that Voyager's literacy program was "a new product with virtually no track record," according to The Post.
Landrieu and Best deny there was any quid pro quo, insisting Landrieu supported the program long before the fund-raiser. But Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group, yesterday filed complaints with the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District for Louisiana and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. The group wants an investigation into the relationship between Landrieu and Best, and has also asked the Senate Ethics Committee to look into the matter.
In CREW's announcement yesterday, its executive director, Melanie Sloan, said, “Senator Landrieu appears to have traded a $2 million earmark for $30,000 in campaign contributions. It was a win-win situation for Best and Senator Landrieu, but a lose-lose for the taxpayers and D.C. school children. ... The Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee should look into this matter immediately. Members of Congress need to understand that trading earmarks for campaign funds is illegal -- no exceptions.”
In a press release yesterday, Landrieu's communications director, Adam Sharp, waved off the call for an investigation: “The frivolous CREW complaint is wholly without merit and is readily dismissed by the facts." And several news accounts suggest the Senate Ethics Committee seldom investigates such complaints -- or makes them public if and when it does.
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This is not the first time there have been charges that Best, a big-dollar fund-raiser for George W. Bush, has benefited from his political connections: Following October 2006 investigations by The Washington Post and Education Week, in May 2007 ABC News reported that Voyager "received the lucrative contracts under a Bush administration initiative called Reading First." --Robert Wilonsky