Senior Democrat Exits House Ethics Panel

The Associated Press
Saturday, April 22, 2006; 3:49 AM

WASHINGTON -- After 16 months of partisan stalemate, the top Democrat on the House ethics committee is stepping down to defend his own conduct and is being replaced by a lawmaker who worked well with Republicans.

Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., decided on his own to leave, at least temporarily, his party leader said Friday.

The departure eases a political dilemma for Democrats. Had he remained, they would have been saddled with the prospect of their top committee member under investigation as his party uses corruption as a major anti-Republican campaign theme.

The GOP immediately went on the attack anyway.

"Congressman Mollohan and the Democrats have repeatedly used the ethics committee to play politics while blocking the committee from functioning," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Mollohan will be replaced by Rep. Howard Berman of California, a former ranking Democrat on the ethics committee. The 10-member panel is the only one in the House equally divided by party.

Berman worked by consensus with committee Republicans, and vowed Friday that he wouldn't stay long if the panel couldn't break a 16-month deadlock in which each party prevented action by the other.

Democrats have demanded investigations of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others who were given trips, fundraisers, meals and sports skybox seats by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that Mollohan steered millions of dollars in appropriations to nonprofit groups in his district _ with much of the money going to organizations run by people who contribute to the lawmaker's campaigns.

A conservative ethics watchdog group, the National Legal and Policy Center, filed a complaint with federal prosecutors this year questioning whether Mollohan correctly reported his assets on financial disclosure forms.

Mollohan has denied any wrongdoing in the appropriations and said his financial disclosures were accurate. He attributed a large increase in assets to a boost in property values.

As late as Thursday, Mollohan was stubbornly refusing to leave. A Democratic official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told Mollohan he needed to step down for the good of the party. "It was not anything she had to get tough about," the official said.

In a statement Friday, Pelosi, D-Calif., called the allegations "an attempt to deflect attention from the long list of Republican criminal investigations, indictments, plea agreements and resignations which have resulted from the reported long-term and extensive criminal enterprise run out of House Republican leadership offices."

Using a phrase that has become a Democratic refrain, Pelosi said, "The Republican culture of corruption has been ignored by the ethics committee for a year and a half following the decision of the Republican leadership to fire their own chairman and committee members for doing their job."

While Mollohan and committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., had 16 months of friction, Berman worked well with former ethics chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo.

Hefley sought to have his term as chairman extended at the start of 2005, but he and two other Republicans were forced off the committee after having voted to admonish DeLay, R-Texas.

Berman made it clear that he was reluctant to return to the committee, an assignment most lawmakers view as a thankless job. He called his return "an honor I could have done without."

© 2006 The Associated Press