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Ouch. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), now the ranking member of the House appropriations committee, has paid out $861,000 in legal fees since learning in May he was under FBI scrutiny, the CREW blog reports.

Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) has run up bills totaling more than $117,000. And Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) has paid more than $70,000, according to CREW.

Is the era of the millionaire-backed attack group coming to an end?

The Federal Election Commission hit the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth with a $299,500 fine today for playing too fast with election rules. The Swift Boat Vets were a "527" organization, which has no limits on contributions, but were acting like federal political committees, the FEC charged. 527s are allowed to work for or against certain candidates, but if they have no other "major purpose," according to FEC spokesman Bob Biersack, then they should register as a committee.

That's a huge difference. Committees can only accept $5,000 in contributions per person per year. The Swift Boat Vets, by comparison, accepted $4.4 million from GOP money man Bob Perry in 2004. Perry played the same trick in this year's election, throwing $9 million at three different 527 attack groups, which used it to target dozens of Democratic congressional candidates all over the country. Democrats have also taken advantage of 527s, and two liberal groups were fined today: MoveOn and the League of Conservation Voters.

If the FEC were to really crack down on this sort of thing (the 527 loophole has been an open secret for a number of years), as they've idly been threatening to do, then 2008 would be a remarkably different election than the past two cycles.

Update: I talked to David Donnelly, the director of Campaign Money Watch, who knows a lot about this sort of thing, and he said that these fines (and the ones rumored to follow soon), probably will have a significant deterring effect in the '08 elections.

We'll be overhauling the site a little bit in the coming weeks, and we've made our first improvement: adding comments. Enjoy.

We'll be checking back periodically to see how the conversation is going, but for those of you who want to be sure to reach us directly with a tip, comment, or correction, please email us using the "Comments" and "Hot Tips?" links in the top left hand corner.

For our first discussion thread, here's a question. What improvements to the site would you like to see?

Union officials are outraged over a massive immigration sweep yesterday, which sent 1,000 Homeland Security Department agents -- some in riot gear -- to meatpacking plants in six states to round up immigrant workers suspected of using fake identification, but may have picked up legal workers in the process.

"Stormtroopers came in with machine guns, rounded [the workers] into the cafeterias, separated identified citizens from non-citizens, and then they took away all green cards and put non-citizens onto buses," regardless of the immigrants' legal status, Jill Cashen of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UCFW) told me this morning.

Cashen said that reports from all six states confirmed that legal immigrants were among those taken away, and have not been returned. "We're still trying to find out where the buses went," she said. "Children have been left at church day cares. Nobody knows where these people are."

Recently unsealed court documents show that DHS had identified 170 identity-fraud suspects it wished to apprehend, but that the agency wanted to round up as many as 5,000 other workers because it "further expect[ed] to apprehend persons who are engaged in large-scale identity theft[.]" Union officials say the total number of detained workers may be higher than 5,000. (Update: We've uploaded those court documents to our document collection here.)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not released official tallies from the raids, but have promised to do so at a 10 a.m. press conference in Washington. UFCW is holding a press conference at 9:30 to discuss what they believe to be heavy-handed tactics used by the federal government.

Dems Consider Creating Outside Ethics Panel "House Democrats are seriously exploring the creation of an independent ethics arm to enforce new rules on travel, lobbying, gifts and other issues that Democrats intend to put in place on taking power next month.

"Senior party officials said Tuesday that Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the incoming speaker, had consulted with Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader, on forming a bipartisan group to examine outside enforcement. The goal would be to have the group report back in the spring.

"An independent Congressional watchdog, if approved, would be a major break with tradition. Some lawmakers say House and Senate members have sole responsibility for policing themselves when it comes to internal rules." (New York Times)

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Morale has tanked at the Justice Department's counterterrorism division, a well-informed source tells me. These are the officials who oversee the federal government's terror prosecutions around the country -- the part of the war on terror that involves actually locking up real terrorists. Why? The administration doesn't seem focused on that part, he says.

These Justice guys are at the business end of the domestic war on terror, but they haven't seen much real action, and that's got to burn. While the NSA sifts through millions of phone records, and the FBI runs down tens of thousands of mostly useless tips, federal prosecutors have only fielded a few hundred cases since 9/11. And even those are mostly chump change: Of 510 cases brought by the Feds in the past five years, they've won only four convictions on terror charges, according to one study.

But the complaints aren't about the stats, my source says. It's the leadership vacuum that keeps them from fighting the good fight. "There's widespread dismay at the adminisration's complete lack of focus and ability to get anything done," he said. "There's no coordination. Nothing actually happens. It's all the same [expletive]."

Via ThinkProgress, I see that Tom DeLay has admitted to not authoring his own blog posts. "“I have the ideas, and I have somebody else put the words together," says he.

Punchline, anyone?

From a chat at this morning with the Post's White House reporter Peter Baker:

Rochester, N.Y.: I'm sure you won't take this one, but it's worth a shot: is anyone in the newsroom concerned about the fact that the Post is hiring John Solomon (formerly of the AP), whose pieces on Harry Reid were widely criticized, not only in the blogosphere but also by media critics (such as your own Howard Kurtz)? Does his hiring mean we can look forward to more RNC-inspired hit pieces on Democratic leaders?

I'll bet your getting a lot of questions like this today. And I'll bet you won't take any of them.

Peter Baker: Old trick: "I bet you won't take this question cuz you're scared, nyah, nyah." (And by the way, glad to welcome back our friend in Rochester to these chats.) But the serious answer to your question is everyone I've talked with in the newsroom is absolutely thrilled that John Solomon is joining us from the Associated Press. John is one of the marquee names in political journalism and he's going to help us build the best accountability team in the business going into the 2008 election cycle. Has he been criticized by partisans in the blogosphere? Personally, I don't know, but who hasn't been? He wouldn't be doing his job as an investigative journalist if he didn't make some people squirm. John and the team he's led at the Associated Press have broken a lot of important stories without regard to political party; in addition to the ethical missteps of Senator Reid, he and his team exposed the Dubai ports deal that caused a huge civil war within the Republican party and uncovered the videotape showing what President Bush was told about Hurricane Katrina before it hit.

Many things I could point out about this response (nothing easier than painting critics with the broad brush of partisanship), but I'll settle for this: Baker, listing Solomon's accomplishments, notes the Dubai ports deal and the pre-Katrina Bush tape, both indisputably big stories, together with Solomon's stories on Reid. The paper also did this in their press release on the hiring.

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Incoming House intelligence chief Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) found himself in hot water recently for failing to know the basics of Islamic radicalism. But he's got other problems: blogger Laura Rozen and other reporters recently noted that Reyes attended a strange meeting with former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and lying arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, according to former CIA official Bill Murray.

Reyes has simply denied the claim, but Weldon is apparently outraged. And while he may be leaving Congress, he's not one to leave an embattled friend behind. So to, he fired off a defense of Reyes in his inimitable style:

"Bill Murray's aim was to impugn the reputation of the incoming chairman of the House intelligence committee. . . . This is outrageous. And it is a blatant lie, because Reyes never met with Ghorbanifar in Paris."

That's right -- Weldon doesn't deny the meeting took place, nor that he attended. He's only incensed that Murray insulted Reyes by suggesting he was also there.

Does that remind anybody else of that old Groucho Marx line, I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me for a member?