Old Scandals Never Die: The Troubles of Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.)

Three weeks ago, House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that neither Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) nor Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) would be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in the 110th Congress. The elephant in the room during the weeks of intense speculation before the announcement was Hastings' controversial past.

To properly address the controversy surrounding Hastings, we must go all the way back to 1981; the year Jimmy Carter left the White House and Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court. In that year, Hastings, serving as a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida (he was first appointed in 1979), was indicted for soliciting a bribe from two defendants convicted of robbery in his court. Specifically, the alleged briber promised Hastings $150,000 if he kept the defendants out of prison and returned to them the funds they stole. The prosecution’s key piece of evidence was a transcript from a phone conversation (obtained through a wiretap) between Hastings and his alleged co-conspirator, William Borders. Hastings is heard saying:

"I've drafted all those ah, ah, letters, ah, for him, and everything's okay. The only thing I was concerned with was, did you hear if, ah, hear from him after we talked?"

The prosecution argued that Hastings was referring to letters he wrote restoring the defendants’ seized funds, and inquiring as to whether Borders had heard from the two convicts. Hastings argued that the letters he was referencing dealt with his efforts to help a friend and former lawyer, Hemphill Pride, regain his legal license. Pride said that he knew of no such effort, and that in fact he was not even eligible for reinstatement. Nevertheless, Hastings was unanimously acquitted in early 1983.

Unsatisfied with the results of the case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals launched its own investigation and found that Hastings not only solicited the bribe, but also lied under oath during his criminal trial. These findings prompted a House subcommittee probe led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). On Conyers’ recommendation the House Judiciary Committee drafted seventeen articles of impeachment against Hastings. Sixteen were connected to the bribery case, while one focused on Hastings’ improper revelation of sensitive FBI wiretap information in 1985. The House, considering all seventeen articles at once, voted 413-3 in favor of impeachment. After a trial by a twelve-member special committee, the Senate voted to convict Hastings on eight of the articles (relating to both conspiracy to commit bribery and lying under oath). The conviction made Hastings only the sixth federal judge ever to be removed from office.

In 1992, a judge remanded Hastings’ conviction back to the Senate, arguing that he should have been tried before the entire Senate rather than just a twelve-member committee. But the Supreme Court overturned that decision, ruling that the courts had no right to impede congressional impeachment procedures and reinstating Hastings’ conviction.

Later that year, Hastings decided to try his hand at another branch of the federal government. His conviction did not bar him from running for legislative office, and he was elected to the House in Florida’s 23rd district. Now completing his fourteenth year, Hastings was next in line to chair the Intelligence Committee behind Jane Harman who had cold relations with Pelosi and was herself under investigation for enlisting members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to lean on Pelosi on her behalf in exchange for urging President Bush to go easy on AIPAC officials caught up in a separate espionage investigation.

Ultimately neither Hastings nor Harman got the chair, and Pelosi announced the new chair would be Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who first joined the committee in 2001, two years after Hastings.

Congresspedia now has a comprehensive page on the Alcee Hastings corruption scandal, including details of the original 1981 charges and indictment, as well as the 1989 congressional action and its impact on the selection of the next House Intelligence Committee chair.