The Hightower Report

Sale: One new identity for $35, two for $50; and What legislators, cigars, Fleetwood Mac tickets, Starbucks, and limo rides have in common


CONGRESSIONAL LIFESTYLE SLUSH FUNDS

Members of Congress like to claim that they're just regular folks. But I don't know many ordinary Americans who have political slush funds to pay for life's little necessities, do you?

These funds, called "leadership PACs," are created by various lawmakers ostensibly to collect money to help elect or re-elect other politicians of their particular stripe. Many of the congressional leaders, however, have been doling out big chunks of their PAC money to the politician they favor the most: themselves!

Take Michael Oxley of Ohio, who chairs a powerful committee. Corporations needing legislative favors are delighted to shove money into Oxley's leadership PAC, but this "leader" is diverting much of it to pay for his own royal lifestyle. In the past two years alone, for example, his PAC paid for $25,000 worth of chauffeured limousine rides around Manhattan. It also covered 47 trips on chartered jets, plus financing his annual ski jaunt out to Vail, as well as golfing trips to Arizona and Florida.

Other members even use their leadership PACs for some of the more mundane purchases that you'd think they'd cover themselves. Tom DeLay, for example, uses his PAC fund to buy cigars, Roy Blunt billed his PAC for tickets to a Fleetwood Mac concert, and Sen. Rick Santorum even charges his PAC for the cups of coffee he buys at Starbucks. Note that all of these Congress critters are archconservatives who are constantly giving speeches about fiscal responsibility and personal integrity.

Both Democrats and Republicans play this self-serving slush-fund game, and both rush to defend their expenditures by saying that the practice is perfectly legal. Well, yes, but guess who wrote the law that makes it legal?

If the managers of, say, a union PAC were caught self-dealing, they'd be indicted. But then, they don't get to write laws to legalize their own immoral behavior.


GUARD YOUR NUMBER

There's a "magic key" that computer hackers can use to open every door to your personal records – including your bank account, credit cards, job history, health insurance, and ... well everything. That key is your Social Security number.

So, you might think that, surely, this number is highly guarded to keep government agents, thieves, or whomever from opening the door to your personal life. Sure it is, Pollyanna. How poorly guarded is it? Practically anyone can buy your very own personal Social Security number from various Web sites for a pittance. For example, Secret-Info.com will sell your number for $35, InfoSearch.com offers it for $45, and Gum-Shoes.com promises prying clients that "if the information is out there, our licensed investigators can find it."

The truth is that our Social Security numbers are everywhere, since all sorts of government agencies and corporations collect the numbers like they are nothing but statistical lint. Some insurance companies use them as account numbers and print them on the insurance card you carry in your wallet, and many universities use them as student ID numbers.

There's now a burgeoning, sometimes shadowy industry of data brokers, private investigators, and others that collects and sells all of our "magic keys." Some of these outfits claim to have all sorts of screens and safeguards to keep our numbers out of the hands of, say, thieves. But The Washington Post approached three of these providers anonymously, and two gave up the full Social Security number of a reporter within 24 hours, with no questions asked.

What we have here is an unregulated system that relies solely on the diligence of data providers, who have a financial disincentive to be diligent. No law prohibits the sale of your Social Security number. But Sen. Charles Schumer is sponsoring legislation to ban any such sale without an individual's permission. For information, call his office: 202/224-6542.

For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit www.jimhightower.com. You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

computer hackers, Social Security number, secret-info.com, infosearch.com, gum-shoes.com, Washington Post, Charles Schumer, political slush funds, leadership PACs, Michael Oxley, Tom DeLay, Roy Blunt, Rick Santorum

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