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When Ken Silverstein, the editor of the twice-monthly investigative newsletter CounterPunch, decided to write a book about Washington lobbying, he knew he was at a severe disadvantage—namely, his complete lack of access to the Washington power structure. So he passed himself off as a lobbyist representing a fake business and dangled money in front of Congress members and aides. Suddenly, the clubhouse doors swung wide open.
“I was nervous that someone might do a background check,” Silverstein recounts. “But they must have been too busy.” Not too busy, however, to lavish the spy with attention. As Silverstein explains in his new book, Washington on $10 Million a Day: How Lobbyists Plunder the Nation (Common Courage Press, $22.95), Reps. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) and Ken Bentsen (D-Texas) were quite solicitous of Silverstein’s sham United Broadcasting Corp., mythically based in Miami.
“I rigorously avoided any lengthy discussions, hoping to avoid having to explain why a Florida-based media company would want to attend a fundraiser for a California congressman who specializes in agricultural issues. I also [feared] that my frequent dashes to the bathroom—where I could discreetly take notes in a stall—might raise suspicions.” But his worries proved groundless. In fact, Radanovich’s staffers insisted that Silverstein meet the guest of honor, who enthusiastically thanked him for coming.
The staff in Bentsen’s office also initially welcomed Silverstein with open arms. (One aide even provided a tip for future fundraiser-hopping: Drink ginger ale so you don’t “end up in trouble” by the time your third affair rolls around.)
Bentsen’s aides, however, recoiled once they figured out that Silverstein was a ringer, sending him a fusillade of accusations over the phone. At least Silverstein gives Bentsen’s staff credit for checking up on him and refusing his pledge. “They did nothing wrong,” he says. “As I say in the book, no one really has to do anything illegal in this town. That’s the beauty of the system.”—Louis Jacobson