An Old Hand Goads Democrats to Get Tough on Ethics

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, February 21, 2008

A man who knows the congressional ethics process like the back of his hand is demanding big-time reform.

As deputy counsel for the Senate ethics committee for six years and chief counsel for six more, Wilson R. Abney gained a perspective only a few insiders have. Abney thinks the process is so desperately in need of repair that he's trying to get a reform proposal before the Democratic National Convention in August, when he hopes the party will adopt a resolution making reform on Capitol Hill part of its national platform.

"After 40 years, the ethics committees have failed to restore the public's trust in the integrity of the federal legislative process and, in fact, have further diminished the public's faith in congressional integrity," Abney writes in a proposed platform resolution.

Abney, who left Washington a decade ago to live in suburban Denver, vehemently opposes a proposal House Democrats expect to bring to the floor in the next couple of weeks. It would create a nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics with the power to initiate investigations into lawmakers' behavior.

That office, however, would have no subpoena power and no ability to punish violators. It could only recommend that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- as the House ethics panel is officially known -- formally take up cases against members. Lawmakers would still be in charge of policing fellow lawmakers.

"That didn't fly with me," Abney told On the Hill, comparing the proposed ethics office to putting a "new air filter on your heater."

Instead, Abney wants to abolish the current ethics panels and create new House and Senate investigative bodies with full subpoena and search-warrant powers, staffed by nonpartisans who would "restore the public's trust," as his resolution puts it.

That resolution was unanimously approved by his caucus precinct in Aurora, Colo., on Feb. 5. Next stop on the Abney Ethics Express is a county caucus March 8. If he is successful there, Abney will take his resolution to the state Democratic convention this spring and, he hopes, on to the national party convention in Denver.

"That's not a far ride," said the suburban Denver resident. "I could 'Pony Express' it from here."

Waxman of the Week

This week we pay tribute to the man who once cornered the market on zealous oversight and the ability to send chills down even the most powerful of spines with sharply worded letters: Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), whose "Dingell-grams" served as inspiration for our "Waxman of the Week."

Dingell, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has at least half a dozen separate oversight investigations of the Food and Drug Administration going. One involves clinical trial data on cholesterol drugs.

Quite frankly, the chairman's not happy with the information he's been getting from the pharmaceutical companies Schering-Plough and Merck, as he said in a Feb. 11 letter to the drug companies' CEOs.

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