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In a Season of Scandals, Ethics Panels Are on Sidelines

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

The House ethics committee, the panel responsible for upholding the chamber's ethics code, has been virtually moribund for the past year, handling only routine business despite a wave of federal investigations into close and potentially illegal relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.

With a California congressman headed to prison for accepting bribes and several others under investigation for accepting lavish gifts and money from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one might expect the House committee to have a lot of work to do.

But the committee's five Republican and five Democratic members have not opened a new case or launched an investigation in the past 12 months. It took months to hire a new chief of staff, and he still is not in place. Nor has the panel hired a full complement of investigators.

"I would say by the early part of January, we will be fully organized -- or should be really close to that," said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the committee's ranking Democrat. By then, he added, the panel "will be in a position to fulfill all of our responsibilities."

The committee's last formal action of note was its recommendation to admonish former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for the second and third times in 2004. Since then, the committee has been crippled.

Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) was ousted as the ethics chairman early this year by House GOP leaders. His successor, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), has been slow to take up the reins because of disputes between Republicans and Democrats over the panel's rules. Hastings and Mollohan also feuded for months about the makeup of the professional staff.

To critics, the long delay is unforgivable. Government watchdog groups say they are appalled that ethics overseers in both the House and Senate have done nothing in the face of a growing number of ethics inquiries against members of Congress. The vacuum, they say, has tacitly encouraged lawmakers to behave improperly and has helped produce the long slide in public trust of Congress.

"There is no ethics enforcement in Congress today, and it's inexcusable," sad Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative monitor of government ethics.

"No matter what level of corruption the members of Congress engage in, the ethics committees do nothing," agreed Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's a national embarrassment."

So far this year, at least seven lawmakers have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct such as conspiracy, securities fraud and improper campaign donations. In the past two weeks alone, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned from Congress and pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy, and public relations executive Michael Scanlon admitted his role in a conspiracy to try to bribe a congressman.

In addition, The Washington Post and other publications have reported that a host of lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats, senators and members of the House -- are being examined by the Justice Department for their connections to Abramoff, a lobbyist who, with his former partner Scanlon, billed Indian tribes $82 million in fees that may have been put to improper uses.

And that's not all. The spouses of lawmakers and their aides-turned-lobbyists -- including those of DeLay -- are also under scrutiny as part of the Abramoff scandal.

In inquiries unrelated to Abramoff, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has been subpoenaed in connection with probes by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department into his sale of stock in HCA Inc., the chain founded by his father and brother. In another case, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) is under investigation by the Justice Department for possible violations connected with a telecommunications deal he was trying to arrange in Nigeria. Both lawmakers have denied wrongdoing.

Despite all this activity, the ethics committees in Congress, which are charged with self-regulation in the House and Senate, have been mum all year.

"I don't think the ethics committees are working very well," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said yesterday on "Meet the Press." "The latest Cunningham scandal was uncovered by the San Diego newspaper, not by" the ethics committee.

The House ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, was shut down for the first part of the year as the House worked through a variety of partisan disagreements over what rules would govern the committee's decisions. It then remained inert for a few more months while it considered more than 80 applicants for its top staff job, which was vacant.

It was not until last month that the panel chose William V. O'Reilly, a partner in the Washington office of the Jones Day law firm, as its chief of staff. But in a telephone message, O'Reilly said that he has not yet begun work at the committee and declined to comment further. He is expected to start early next year.

O'Reilly's start date will not be enough on its own to get things moving, however. Mollohan said the ethics committee still must hire three or four investigative counsels before it is fully up and running. In the meantime, the panel has handled only routine matters such as issuing advice and perusing lawmakers' disclosures; no investigations have been undertaken in 2005.

In contrast, the ethics committee has been extremely active in the past. It has upbraided or warned two former House speakers -- Jim Wright (D-Tex.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- for alleged ethical lapses. It has also criticized House colleagues for matters such as financial improprieties and sexual misconduct. The Senate's ethics panel, officially called the Select Committee on Ethics, has been completely staffed and organized all year but has been silent. Neither Chairman George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) nor the panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.), returned phone calls last week about its activities. The panel's staff also declined to comment.

In the past, however, the committee has made it a practice not to pursue inquiries when other law enforcement agencies were involved in their own investigations. The panel has worried that its questions might interfere with the agencies' efforts.

The watchdog groups see such explanations as hollow. "This is really an important time for Congress to step up and say this is going way too far and something needs to be done about it," said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause.

The ethics panels, she said, need to act like police watching a busy street. "If the cop's on the corner, you're going to slow down."

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