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Salon Newsreal[  Murray Waas: A plague on all their houses    ]

Portrait of a political "pit bull"

Dan Burton

Rep. Dan Burton, the powerful Indiana congressman who called President Clinton a "scumbag," has a few questions to answer about his own history of womanizing and alleged campaign finance irregularities.

December 1998

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Editor's Note: Earlier this year, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the powerful head of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and a major critic of both President Clinton's personal behavior and his campaign fund-raising techniques, startled the country by suddenly admitting that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.

At the time Burton said his announcement was due to an upcoming article about his personal life in Vanity Fair magazine. He also issued a challenge to reporters at that time: "As far as peccadilloes and all that stuff, man, they could go from dawn till dusk digging around trying to find out stuff about that ... There's nothing else to learn."

As it turned out, with perfect postmodern irony, Vanity Fair chose not to publish the exposť of Burton's behavior that prompted him to "out" himself. But as investigative reporter Russ Baker, the author of that unpublished article, discovered when he continued his inquiry, there was in fact a great deal more to learn about the congressman's behavior.

The facts as documented in this story speak for themselves. Baker, who based his report on interviews with more than 120 sources, draws a portrait of a Capitol Hill potentate who has apparently abused his power by using strong-arm and unethical campaign finance practices and by preying on female lobbyists, staffers and constituents.

This weekend, Burton told CNN that politicians should be entitled to keep their private lives private, but their performance of "public duties" should be subject to journalistic scrutiny. The allegations contained in this article fall well within the boundaries Burton himself has established for media inquiry and comment.

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Sept. 13, 1995. Dan Burton was outraged. The Republican congressman from Indiana, looking a little like a military chaplain with his helmet of gray hair and aviator-style glasses, rose from his seat in the House of Representatives to ask why President Clinton was not yet facing serious scrutiny over the Paula Jones matter, whereas Bob Packwood, the Republican senator from Oregon, had been forced just days before -- appropriately, Burton emphasized -- to resign over his sexual improprieties.

"But why, I ask, are we excusing or ignoring similar behavior?" he demanded. "No one, regardless of what party they serve, no one, regardless of what branch of government they serve, should be allowed to get away with these alleged sexual improprieties, and yet it is obvious to me ... that a double standard does exist."

Burton's political career has been punctuated by uncompromising sermons on personal morality in high places. His Web site states in large type, "Above all, Dan Burton believes the people have a right to principled leadership and that character does matter," and boasts that "Dan Burton is the leader in the Congress fighting against all odds to get at the truth on all the Clinton Scandals."

A self-described "pit bull" of the political right, Burton made headlines last April when he told the editorial board of the Indianapolis Star: "If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he'd [Clinton] be gone. This guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him." The comment earned him a mountain of rebuke from colleagues and the press. "Dan Burton is a crude, crass man who is a disgrace to his district, his state, his party and the House," the Chicago Tribune editorialized. Burton refused to apologize.

This past fall, in his role as chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Burton cast himself as a moral watchdog for political fund-raising, threatening to cite Attorney General Janet Reno for contempt of Congress over the issue of appointing an independent counsel to look into alleged Democratic fund-raising abuses. "Is it any surprise to find Chinese arms dealers, drug dealers and fugitives from justice attending Democratic National Committee events at the White House with the president?" he asked at the start of the House campaign finance hearings.

Burton's critics and not a few of his friends find it strange, however, that the congressman is given to such strident moralizing. He has repeatedly faced questions about his own campaign fund-raising tactics, including accusations from a lobbyist that Burton strong-armed him for contributions and threatened to destroy his career if he did not pay up. Even more disturbing are allegations uncovered by Salon of the illegal use of congressional offices by Burton and a member of his committee staff for campaign fund-raising -- the very charge that has been leveled by Republicans at President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Burton receives a 100-percent rating from the Christian Coalition for voting its positions on key issues. Yet the championing of family values by this father of three is undermined by a personal history of marital infidelity. In September, fearful of revelations that might surface in an article by this reporter, then scheduled for publication in Vanity Fair, Burton admitted that he had fathered an illegitimate son in an extramarital affair in the early 1980s.

This did not come as a complete surprise to reporters following Burton, who had been hearing rumors about a former Burton mistress with an out-of-wedlock "love child" for years. The woman involved, who is now in her late 40s, told Salon she worked for a Cabinet-level state agency when Burton came calling, wooing her with flowers. The woman, who declined to be interviewed at length or on the record, did affirm reluctantly that Burton is her son's father. The boy, who recently turned 15, would have been conceived during the 1982 campaign when Burton was first elected to Congress as "a man who cares."

But Burton's moral standing is further clouded by allegations of on-the-job sexual harassment, including an accusation that he groped a lobbyist from Planned Parenthood in the mid-1990s when she visited his Washington office. According to several sources, Burton has also maintained sexual relationships with women on his congressional and campaign payrolls.

(An initial request for an interview with Burton was met by a plea from his press secretary, John Williams, that there be "no personal questions," in order to protect "privacy." Subsequently, Burton decided not to be interviewed at all. "We've had just about enough profiles of him done this year," explained Williams. On Monday, Williams declined a final interview request.)

The portrait of Burton that emerged from a seven-month investigation is that of a man much like his nemesis, President Clinton: Both rose from troubled, violence-plagued, working-class childhoods to political prominence, and both have put their careers at risk with sexual indiscretions. But unlike Clinton, Burton has made a career of attacking people who are most like him, and lionizing those whose values he himself cannot live by.

N E X T+P A G E+| "His approval rating has gone even higher"


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