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Greased Palms 

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The songwriting career of Sen. Orrin Hatch will not likely land him a spot on American Idol anytime soon. But that’s OK, because demand for his CDs is growing—at least among lobbyists with whom he has done business.

On Aug. 15, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on Sen. Hatch’s cozy relationship with Monzer Hourani, who runs Medistar, a medical real estate company in Houston. Hatch and Hourani have been friends for decades.

WSJ reported that Mr. Hourani bought 1,200 copies of the senator’s patriotic CDs, using Medistar as a “distributor.” The agreement allowed his company to split any net income, but that must have been difficult, since Hourani says he gave them all away to friends and associates. If Hourani paid retail (up to $15.98 each, according to WSJ) with sales tax, he could have spent over $20,000 for these “gifts.” The exact amount wasn’t reported, and how much profit ended up in Hatch’s pocket was unclear.

Here’s where it really gets interesting. Medistar’s biggest customer, according to WSJ, is HealthSouth, which at the moment is crawling with feds looking into accounting “irregularities.” Fourteen HealthSouth execs have been indicted.

It was not so long ago that Hatch was going to bat for the company—thanks to encouragement from Hourani. In 2002, again according to The Wall Street Journal, HealthSouth was squawking about how low Medicare reimbursements were hurting the company. According to WSJ, one of the company’s lobbyists, Eric Hanson, put a bug in Hourani’s ear, who passed the word onto Hatch, who followed with a phone call to Medicare Administrator Thomas Scully, saying, according to WSJ, “Whatever’s right, do.” Scully’s stood firm.

In politics, no one is simply a friend, and such favors fit into the overall Hatch/Hourani relationship.

In the 1980s, according to WSJ, Hourani managed a property for Hatch in Houston. In 1986, Hatch helped Hourani get a $10 million loan despite Hourani having defaulted on a previous loan. In 1995, the Federal Election Commission fined Hourani $10,000 after the FBI caught him illegally reimbursing employees for donations to Hatch’s re-election.

That’s how it works in politics. If you’re buds, influence doesn’t look like lobbying. A greased palm here and there—$10,000 this time, $20,000 the next—and pretty soon we’re talking real money.

The Wall Street Journal piece also made mention of former House Speaker Jim Wright, who resigned in 1989 over a questionable book deal that paid him $55,000. Hourani’s deal has similarities to Wright’s. Because Hourani gave the CDs away, it looks to us more like a backdoor campaign contribution than a “distribution” arrangement.

Hourani has enjoyed the kind of help from Hatch that you and I can only dream of. Shouldn’t the average citizen enjoy the same access to a U.S. senator as people with money? Paul Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota, put that philosophy into practice every day. When was the last time Orrin Hatch stepped in to help you get that $10 million loan? Don’t wake me from my dream, please.

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John Yewell

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