The Speaker's Lobby: The Transom

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

07 April 2010

It came pouring in over the transom.

Emails. Phone calls. Visits to my office in the Capitol. Even a hand-scribbled note Scotch-taped to my door.

It came from Democrats. It came from Republicans. It came from people I knew well and people I've never heard of before.

The deluge gushed. All from those who had something to say about former Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY).

Some had info about Massa himself. Others offered guidance into what senior House leaders may have known about him. Others drew comparisons to former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) or the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Some wanted to talk about Massa and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Still others argued this really wasn't a tempest at all.

For a week and a half, the fall of the house of Massa dominated the news in Washington. And everyone on both sides of the aisle seized this as an opportunity.

At first, some Democrats briefly, and I mean briefly, defended Massa. Then when they realized there were allegations of groping and tickle fights, they couldn't perform a "Massa-ctomy" fast enough to purge the New York Democrat from the party.

Then the right started. Were Democrats derailing Massa because he opposed the health care bill? What about the scene in the House gym with Rahm Emanuel? Better check on what Nancy and Steny knew. Could be a cover-up, they whispered.

I've got to be honest with you. I hate reporting stories like this. You get is innuendo. Salacious tidbits, each more prurient than the last. There is rarely a smoking gun. Or in the vernacular, a semen-stained blue dress. And the allegations are always nearly impossible to prove.

But they keep cascading over the transom.

These are stories that make and break reporters. They're good tales. But honestly, it's not fun to chase these things down.

I would estimate than in the past year, I've gotten tips for about 15 scintillating stories. Someone is having an affair. Someone is having an affair with a staffer. Someone is having a gay affair with a staffer. These tips have involved people in Congressional leadership. Rank-and-file members from both sides of the Capitol. Officials at the White House. People in the administration. Brass at the Pentagon.

And I've broken precisely ZERO of these purported scandals.

These are hot tips. The kinds of tips that if true, would command the headlines and rattle the city's political plate tectonics.

And as a reporter, I loathe it.

That's because these tips can upend lives, tear apart families and crash careers. Personally, they make me cringe.

But I take the tips anyway. I take the calls. Read the emails. And then I'm off, running my traps to see if there's a grain of truth to the allegations.

It's a bear to confirm one of these tips. And parse out the truth from the innuendo and chatter planted by someone's political enemies...sometimes cooked up by other lawmakers and political operatives who you would presume to be their allies.

Political sex scandals make for great copy. See Woods, Tiger. But they're especially delicious in politics. Bill Clinton. John Edwards. Elliot Spitzer. John Ensign. Mark Sanford. Newt Gingrich. Bob Livingston. Gary Condit. Larry Craig. Gary Hart. And I've just scratched the surface.

It's one thing for a politician to just have an affair. But of course the scandals are even juicier if the liaisons involve a lobbyist, an aide, or, gasp, even an intern. That means there's not only infidelity. But perhaps a broach of the public trust. Someone sleeping their way to the top in a Congressional office. Learning state secrets during pillow talk. Even quid pro quo: carrying on with someone from K Street then thinking nothing of it when they tuck a rider into an appropriations bill that benefits their client.

Perhaps my inability to break these stories reflect my own deficiencies as a reporter. Maybe I don't have the right sources. Or maybe the people who have the scoop just aren't willing to share it with me. Perhaps I don't ask the right questions.

I recently told someone on Capitol Hill that the only thing worse than being involved in a political sex scandal is being the reporter who calls around asking who slept with whom. No amount of experience or nerve prepares you for the awkwardness of those conversations.

"Hey Jim! I hate to ask you this, but is your boss having an affair with you know who? He isn't. Okay. Great. Thanks. By the way, what can you can you tell me about on your amendment to that Homeland Security bill? Do you think the Rules Committee will make it in order?"

Sure, it's rare that I call the chief-of-staff or directly confront the alleged paramour. Or even take them at their word when they deny that anything is going on. But you have to brace yourself to have a phone slammed down on the other end. Shield yourself from a fusillade of invective, peppered with profanity. Risk being cut off permanently from that office.

And somehow, telling them that you're "just doing your job" doesn't carry much weight in those situations. There isn't a faster way to burn sources or contacts than trying to track down a sex scandal. Even if it's true.

Not only is it challenging to piece together the puzzle, but you're often dealing with tawdry stuff. Talking about President Clinton and cigars. Eric Massa and tickle fights. Wondering why Eliot Spitzer was willing to cough up lots of cash for his high-priced hooker, yet failed to buy her an a high-speed Acela ticket from New York to Washington for their tryst. Instead Spitzer put Ashley Dupre, known as "Kristen" on the slow train down to DC. Now, some refer to that rail line as the "Kristen" train.

Certainly, I realize that any information I get is usually coming from someone with an axe to grind. So that makes me immediately question the credibility of the information. And the more licentious the story, the more I doubt its veracity.

A few months ago, I started digging into an alleged affair involving one lawmaker. I quickly ran into a complete dead-end. I phoned the source back and told them the trail was cold. The source said he told me to check into the wrong lawmaker. He meant someone else. The second lawmaker just happened to look like the second lawmaker and that's why he got it mixed up.

I dropped the entire matter.

I'm sure we will hear more about Eric Massa in the coming months. And I'm sure we'll get whiffs of other scandals, each more tawdry than the last.

And to those who care to dish, the transom remains open. Please keep the info coming. It's part of the job. Comes with the territory.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it. 

-          Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-          The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.