Wynn Decides to Leave Congress Months Before His Term Expires

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 28, 2008

Eight-term U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who was defeated last month in the Democratic primary, said yesterday he will resign from Congress in June to take a job at a prominent Washington law firm with an active lobbying practice.

His decision to leave before his term ends in January prompted some residents of his district to worry that they will be left without representation for months unless Maryland holds a potentially costly special election to replace him.

Several congressional ethics experts also called it highly unusual to announce a resignation months before it takes effect, a situation that might force Wynn to recuse himself from votes.

Wynn, who for 15 years has represented the 4th Congressional District, which includes most of Prince George's County and part of Montgomery County, said in a statement that it is "time to move into another phase of my life." He indicated he will become a partner in the law firm Dickstein Shapiro. He lost in the primary by more than 20 percentage points to Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's nonprofit executive.

Wynn would not comment beyond his statement, which did not give a reason for the timing of his resignation.

Ethics experts and watchdog groups characterized Wynn's move as potentially rife with conflicts of interest because he could be confronted with issues related to his new employer's clients while still in office.

"Typically once somebody announces their departure, they start packing their bags," said Kenneth A. Gross, an ethics expert at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "It's hard to legislate when people are already thinking of you in the private sector."

Under an ethics law enacted last year, lawmakers are required to notify the House Ethics Committee soon after they begin to negotiate for a job outside Congress. A spokesman for the committee declined to comment on whether Wynn had alerted the committee.

Wynn suggested that he was leaving early in part to give Edwards the chance to join Congress early through a special election, allowing her to build seniority and get off to a "fast start in serving the citizens of our community."

However, a special election is not guaranteed. Under Maryland law, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) can choose whether to hold a special primary and general election or leave the seat empty until January, when the winner of November's general election will be sworn in. Edwards will face Republican Peter James in November in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Asked about Wynn's departure at a news conference yesterday, O'Malley said he will consider the options.

"We haven't had time to run the constitutional traps on that one," O'Malley said.

If O'Malley calls a special election, Maryland taxpayers would shoulder the costs. If he elects to leave the seat open, the district would be without congressional representation for at least six months.

Some in the district said yesterday that they found those choices unappealing and predicted that voters would be disappointed in Wynn for forcing them.

"It's a mess," said University of Maryland political science professor Ron Walters. "The reaction will run the gamut. . . . But most people will be put off that he didn't wait and think it's some kind of vindictive act, leaving those in the district in the lurch."

Edwards, who defeated Wynn by criticizing his 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq and arguing that he had grown too close to corporate interests, praised him yesterday for his service.

"In the spirit of a dedicated public servant, Congressman Wynn is looking out for the interests of his constituents and I commend him for that," Edwards said in a statement.

She did not indicate whether she wants a special election to be held.

House rules say that Wynn will be barred from directly lobbying former colleagues for a year. By leaving office early, he could become a registered lobbyist sooner. In a statement, the law firm he will join said that Wynn will focus on legal, legislative and regulatory counseling.

"I think it mirrors what senator Trent Lott did and others," Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said of Wynn's early exit. "I haven't talked to him about this, but rather than be a lame-duck congressman, he'd rather be a well-paid lobbyist as soon as possible."

Dickstein Shapiro is one of Washington's larger lobbying firms, with $6.2 million in reported lobbying fees last year. Its clients include the tobacco, entertainment, energy and software industries. It also represents the Teamsters.

Wynn, first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1982, has been a powerful fixture in local politics, and his decision to leave public life suddenly took many by surprise. In his statement, Wynn called it a "great honor" to have served in Congress.

A chorus of elected leaders praised Wynn yesterday for his years in public life, sympathizing with his need to find new employment.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called Wynn a "good friend" who had worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents.

"During a period of significant growth, Congressman Wynn's work has helped solidify the position of Prince George's and Montgomery Counties as highly attractive places to live and work within the region," Hoyer said in a statement. "The impact of his efforts and contributions will carry on long after he has left office."

Staff writers John Wagner and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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