The Ethics Panel Stirs

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

IT'S A SIGN of the paralysis that has plagued the House ethics committee for the past 16 months that the committee's decision -- finally -- to launch three investigations was front-page news. In fact, the probes announced Wednesday represent ethics no-brainers: Two concern House members -- Ohio Republican Robert W. Ney and Louisiana Democrat William J. Jefferson -- who are the target of criminal bribery probes and could well be gone from office before the ethics panel wraps up its work. The third involves the ethical clouds stirred up by the activities of former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), now serving eight years for taking $2.4 million in bribes. The ethics committee should have begun these investigations months ago, along with a probe -- which it now says is moot because of his decision to resign from Congress next month -- of the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Part of the reason for the ethics freeze involved the poisonous relations between the panel's chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), and its former ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.). Under those unhappy circumstances, Mr. Mollohan's decision to resign from the committee, after new reports raised questions about his own compliance with ethics rules, represented a blessing in disguise. The new ranking Democrat, Rep. Howard L. Berman (Calif.), is an experienced hand on ethics issues (he served in that post during the 108th Congress) who enjoys a far better relationship with Mr. Hastings. The committee's actions since his arrival represent a welcome change.

But the real test for the committee under the new leadership isn't whether it can manage to rouse itself to piggyback on criminal inquiries that are already underway. Having an ethics panel that simply mirrors the activities of federal prosecutors doesn't add much value. Rather, there are numerous ethical issues, and potential ethical violations, that don't rise to the level of a prosecutable criminal offense but that nonetheless -- in the catchall language of House ethics rules -- fail to "reflect creditably on the House." In that sense, the committee's willingness to probe the Cunningham matter despite his departure from Congress is a positive sign: As the ethics committee statement dryly noted, "reports have suggested that federal officials are investigating whether Representative Cunningham and possibly other Members and staff were provided hotel rooms, limousines, and other services in exchange for performing official acts."

Which leads to a critical question left unaddressed by Wednesday's announcements: What about Jack Abramoff? Yes, the committee will look at his entanglements with Mr. Ney -- but what of the numerous other lawmakers and staff members whom Mr. Abramoff and his team plied with goodies and asked for favors? Perhaps the ethics committee is quietly engaged in such a review. That seems like an important topic for a House ethics committee truly committed to doing its job.

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