By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006
The House ethics committee plans to quickly begin its probes into the activities of Reps. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and William J. Jefferson (D-La.) while working with the Justice Department to avoid interference with federal prosecutors' investigations of the same lawmakers, according to people familiar with the panel's efforts.
The committee's surprise decision Wednesday to open inquiries into allegations that the congressmen accepted bribes -- as well as a third, wider-ranging probe -- was meant to tamp down criticism that the panel is dysfunctional and that the House is not policing the ethical lapses of its members, according to the sources.
Yet it was not clear that the committee would have enough time to complete its work before the end of the legislative session this autumn, or that its efforts would not complicate the work of Justice Department prosecutors and investigators.
After 16 months of inactivity and partisan bickering, the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, this week created special investigative subcommittees to look separately into the cases of Ney and Jefferson.
Each of the subcommittees has four members, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and has the power to subpoena documents and compel testimony. They are likely to begin work before the House departs for the Memorial Day recess at the end of next week, House sources said.
The Justice Department has traditionally opposed such parallel inquiries by congressional committees for fear that lawmakers might complicate its collection of testimony and information. The Senate's ethics panel, for instance, regularly steps aside when another enforcement agency is looking into the behavior of senators.
But House officials indicated yesterday that they hope the continuing conversations between the Justice Department and the ethics committee will avert conflicts. A spokesman for the department declined to comment.
Stanley Brand, a lawyer and expert on congressional ethics, said that simultaneous inquiries are "impractical" and might put the Justice Department's efforts in jeopardy.
"I can't imagine that they will pursue subpoenas and testimony and get in the way of the Justice Department; that hasn't happened in the past," he said in reference to the ethics subcommittees.
Moreover, he said, an ethics panel's probes are likely to take "months and months" and will not be finished before the end of the year.
The committee has routinely disclosed when it formed subcommittees for scrutinizing possible wrongdoing by specific lawmakers, but its leaders have rarely spoken publicly about preliminary or wider-ranging types of inquiries. Nonetheless, on Wednesday the panel announced that it is looking into the possibility that staffers and lawmakers other than the now-jailed former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) might have been "provided hotel rooms, limousines and other services in exchange for performing official acts."
The choice to go public was a reaction to the ethics committee's moribund condition over the past 16 months, insiders said. During that period, Republicans and Democrats squabbled over how the panel should be run and staffed. New, restrictive committee rules, opposed by Democrats, were at first adopted and then rescinded. The panel did not have a consensus chief counsel until January.
The logjam over starting new investigations was finally broken after Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) was replaced last month as the committee's ranking Democrat by a respected veteran of the panel, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.). Mollohan was forced to step down after his business dealings with recipients of federal funds that he appropriated became the subject of a federal investigation.
Yesterday, Republicans sought to portray Mollohan as the primary cause of the long holdup in new investigations. "Congressman Mollohan was stalling the process for political gain on behalf of the minority leader," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Democrats did not want a functioning ethics committee, he said, so that they could more easily accuse Republicans of acting improperly with lobbyists.
"There was not even an option for the ethics committee because of the recalcitrance of Mollohan," agreed Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee. "I take my hat off to Howard Berman. He is a pro. He knows how to deal in a bipartisan way with a sensitive and tough issue."
Democrats dismissed the attacks on Mollohan as a smoke screen to obscure Republicans' culpability in the ethics committee's shutdown. The GOP had refused to cooperate with Democrats as a way to protect their then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), Democrats said.
DeLay is resigning from the House next month under the cloud of a Texas indictment on money laundering charges and of federal investigations into his dealings with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeLay, Ney, Jefferson and Mollohan have all said that they have done nothing wrong.