The Buck Just Stops

Saturday, December 9, 2006

WHAT, ONE HAS to wonder, would it take for the House ethics committee to hold a lawmaker or a staff member accountable?

A special investigative subcommittee convened to examine responses to Mark Foley's inappropriate contacts with congressional pages found "a significant number of instances where Members, officers or employees failed to exercise appropriate diligence and oversight." It found "a disconcerting unwillingness to take responsibility for resolving issues regarding Rep. Foley's conduct." And it found "a pattern of conduct . . . among many individuals to remain willfully ignorant of the potential consequences of former Representative Foley's conduct with respect to House pages."

The sum total of disciplinary actions the panel is recommending as a result? Zero.

In a report released yesterday, the panel did a good job laying out the disturbing facts of the case: how the Florida Republican's inappropriate interest in pages manifested itself from his first days on the job and how lawmakers and staff failed to do nearly enough to find out about or fix the problem. It ably described the stakes involved: "The failure to exhaust all reasonable efforts to call attention to potential misconduct involving a Member and House page is not merely the exercise of poor judgment; it is a present danger to House pages and to the integrity of the institution of the House." Then, all too characteristically, the committee declined to hold even a single individual responsible for any misstep.

It's true, as the report said, that not "every error in judgment" is a violation of House rules. It's also true that those who failed to stop Mr. Foley weren't aware at the time of his most egregious conduct, the sexually explicit instant messages he sent to a former page. But if not every error in judgment is a violation, the ethics committee's approach seems to be that no error, however egregious, is.

The report chronicled errors of omission and commission -- and episodes of inexplicable forgetfulness -- that are widespread and bipartisan. It concluded that "the weight of the evidence" is that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was warned about Mr. Foley's "overly friendly" e-mails and that Mr. Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, his denials notwithstanding, had confronted Mr. Foley about his behavior years earlier. It described how Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) didn't respond forcefully enough when told by a former page in 2000 that Mr. Foley had sent the page a sexually graphic instant message; once the scandal broke and the page asked Mr. Kolbe what he should do if questioned by authorities, Mr. Kolbe told him that "it is best that you don't even bring this up."

The committee found that the e-mails were treated -- by operatives on both sides -- as a potential political issue, not as one of moral

responsibility. Assessing the conduct of Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House campaign committee chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the panel found, "Like too many others, neither the Majority Leader nor Rep. Reynolds showed any curiosity regarding why a young former page would have been made uncomfortable by e-mails from Rep. Foley." And Democrats who obtained the e-mails, notably Democratic Caucus communications director Matt Miller, saw them as a political weapon, trying to sell the story to wary reporters.

The ethics committee concluded that none of this rose to the level of conduct that, in the words of the relevant rule, failed to reflect creditably on the House. This conclusion fails to reflect creditably on the ethics committee.

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