Commentary Magazine


Closing the Coverage Gap on Harry Reid

Both professional and college sports fans have dealt with the “East Coast bias,” the way the location of major media outlets and the time zone difference across the country impact the attention paid to games. (What, you don’t want to burn the midnight oil to catch every moment of the early-season showdown between Gonzaga and Pepperdine?) The political version of this usually pits the “Acela corridor” against the “real America,” which has more to do with content bias. But as any media consumer can attest, there is a coverage gap as well.

Could that account for absurdly underreported whiff of scandal persistently swirling around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Whatever the reason, the press has certainly abdicated its basic responsibilities when it comes to Reid. There are, of course, exceptions, the superb Jon Ralston chief among them. And now RealClearPolitics’ Adam O’Neal has made a splash with the first installment of a two-part series on Reid, the first titled “Harry Reid’s Long, Steady Accretion of Power & Wealth.”

Those who have watched Reid’s career closely, O’Neal reports, “say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic.” Recent revelations about Reid using his political campaign to his granddaughter’s financial benefit are perhaps a sign that in the current media landscape such activities are more difficult to hide and, according to one Reid watcher paraphrased by O’Neal, “not a product of him changing his style.”

In other words, the more you look the more you’ll find with regard to Reid’s ethics experiments. O’Neal did just that, wondering in part how Reid became so fabulously wealthy on a politician’s salary:

Theoretically, working as a lawmaker should have severely limited Reid’s earning potential. In the early 1980s, members of Congress received a salary of about $70,000 per year. Though pay has generally risen — and Reid receives more than most lawmakers because of his leadership position — he has never earned more than $200,000 per year in salary.

Yet, his estimated net worth peaked at around $10 million just a few years ago, and he has remained consistently wealthier than when he entered Congress.

Perhaps Reid’s mysterious wealth has attracted more attention since most of his time on the Senate floor is spent denouncing private citizens who have made more money than he has while his party outlines various strategies to confiscate that wealth. Presumably Reid believes that if he were more forthright about his assets, Democrats would instinctively move to confiscate them.

Whatever the reason, here is some of what O’Neal has put together:

In 1998, Reid invested $400,000 in an undeveloped residential property located on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Reid’s partner in the deal was attorney Jay Brown, whom Ralston describes as a “master manipulator.” Reid transferred his share of the property to a company Brown controlled in 2001. By transferring the land to Brown’s firm, Reid avoided legal liability and some taxes. But Reid didn’t note the transfer — or that he had any stake in the company — in his financial disclosure forms, despite rules requiring such transfers to be reported. By 2004, Brown’s company sold the land, which had been rezoned for a shopping center, and Reid received $1.1 million. He reported the sale as if he had always had control of the property.

When the Associated Press asked Reid about the deal during a 2006 interview, he hung up on the reporter. A spokesman later said that “there were several legal steps associated with the investment during those years that did not alter Senator Reid’s actual ownership interest in the land.” However, there was no physical proof that Reid had any stake in Brown’s company. The story may have caused Reid public embarrassment — he amended his ethics reports to include the full history of the property — but he walked away from the deal some $700,000 richer.

That isn’t the only problematic land deal Reid was involved with at the time. In 2002, he put $10,000 into a pension fund controlled by another friend, Clair Haycock. The payment gave Reid a sizable parcel of land in Bullhead City, Ariz. According to the Los Angeles Times, Reid purchased the land for one-tenth of its estimated value (and one-fortieth of what it had sold for a decade earlier). Two actions created suspicion afterward. First, Reid sponsored an $18 million earmark for a bridge that would connect Laughlin, Nev., and Bullhead City. This bridge would likely increase property values in the area. Reid also introduced legislation that would benefit Haycock’s lubricant company. Reid aides denied that his support for the earmark or lubricant dealer bill was related to the land purchase. By 2011, Reid’s initial $10,000 investment was valued at between $250,000 and $500,000. The property did not appear in his 2012 disclosure. 

While some of Reid’s most lucrative deals involved land, he also benefited from investments in stocks. Near the end of the 2005, he invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in the Dow Jones U.S. Energy Sector Fund, which held shares in several major oil companies. According to National Review, the fund closed at $29.15 on the day Reid purchased. Nearly three years later, in August 2008, Reid sold some of his shares, which closed that day at $41.82. Two months later, Reid-supported legislation that would cost oil companies billions in taxes and regulatory fees passed. The Energy Sector Fund’s shares plummeted to $24.41 each. 

There’s more, believe it or not, so read the whole thing. Reid’s career is an abject lesson in the need for transparency and accountability in government. The tools available to an elected official for self-enrichment are numerous and some politicians will avail themselves of them if they think no one’s watching. It’s good to see that dedicated lack of attention is no longer the case with Reid, whose questionable behavior should have been an open invitation long ago for the media to do its job.

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