Foley Case a Test for Ethics Panel

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Despite an uncharacteristic spurt of activity, the House ethics committee is unlikely to complete its investigation of the Mark Foley page scandal before the election, but it may issue an interim report on Foley's activities and how the GOP leadership responded to warnings, according to sources.

A committee panel has spent two weeks hearing from an array of witnesses. These included former House clerk Jeff Trandahl, who helped supervise the pages, and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said he warned House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) this spring about Foley's inappropriate e-mails to a former page from Louisiana.

Foley (R-Fla.) abruptly resigned his House seat Sept. 29 after being confronted by ABC News with copies of sexually explicit instant messages he had sent to male former pages. The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into Foley's actions, and the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which has been largely dormant for the past two years, is investigating what, if anything, House GOP leaders did in response to repeated warnings about Foley's conduct.

Next week, the panel is likely to depose members of Hastert's staff, including chief of staff Scott Palmer and counsel Ted Van Der Meid, and possibly the speaker himself.

It may also interview Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who is the subject of a preliminary Justice Department inquiry into a camping trip he took with male former pages and others in 1996.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who sits on the ethics committee but is not on the four-member task force investigating the Foley matter, said both political parties have a stake in seeing that the probe is completed as soon as possible. The scandal has become an issue in several races and has cast a pall over the House, an institution that had already suffered a serious decline in public approval, according to polling.

"There's no upside for anybody in dragging this out," Cole said. "It serves us well and it serves [the Democrats] well to actually just do the right thing."

The committee's sudden flurry of activity -- its members have taken sworn depositions from key players in the Foley scandal four days a week for the past two weeks -- contrasts with its failure to respond to a rash of lobbying and political corruption scandals over the past two years. Evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the committee sat idle while the two parties feuded over staffing and procedural issues. Some ethics watchdog groups say the outcome of the Foley probe will demonstrate whether Congress can police itself.

"This is a crucial test institutionally," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the ethics committee and the Foley investigative panel. "If we can't divorce ourselves from the political consequences and come to a bipartisan conclusion, it speaks poorly for the future of peer review in the House."

In April, the ethics committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) stepped aside when it became known that he was under federal investigation for funneling federal funds to home-state foundations and possibly enriching himself. A month later, the committee finally announced that it was investigating three people: former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio). Cunningham and Ney have pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, and Cunningham has begun serving a long prison sentence. Jefferson is the subject of another federal bribery probe. The committee has not issued reports in any of those cases.

"Regardless of what happens in the Foley investigation, the ethics process in the House is a failed process and must be fixed," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a congressional watchdog who supports establishment of an independent investigative body that would answer to the ethics panel. "We have had the most congressional corruption scandals in three decades, and we have had a House ethics committee that did nothing about it."

But Berman and the committee's chairman, Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), have managed to resuscitate the panel to some extent in recent months, doling out private advice to lawmakers behind closed doors and taking on the politically sensitive task of probing whether Hastert and his deputies failed to act quickly enough to stop Foley.

In a statement, Hastings said the task force's "primary focus is on how individuals holding positions of authority in the House -- as well as the overall system, if you will -- handled information concerning improper interaction between members and House pages."

Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered a resolution demanding that the panel issue a preliminary report on its work within 10 days. GOP leaders referred the measure to the ethics committee, and it is now clear that the panel will not release its findings that quickly.

The committee has not decided whether to issue an interim report, sources said, but members will weigh the option after concluding depositions in the case.

Hastings said that although he and his colleagues hope to conclude the probe soon, "the American people are entitled to the entire truth about how this incident was handled, and we'll take as long as necessary to make sure they get it.

"You simply cannot pledge to go wherever the evidence takes you and, at the same time, set some self-imposed deadline and expect to be taken seriously," he said.

The task force needs to depose only about half a dozen additional witnesses and does not need to engage in a lengthy document review, but GOP ethics lawyer Jan Baran said it will be nearly impossible for the committee to issue a final report before voters go to the polls.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company