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Dozens in Congress under ethics inquiry

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By Ellen Nakashima and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009; 12:40 PM

House ethics investigators have been scrutinizing the activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several aides in inquiries about issues including defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling, according to a confidential House ethics committee report prepared in July.

The report appears to have been inadvertently placed on a publicly accessible computer network, and it was provided to The Washington Post by a source not connected to the congressional investigations. The committee said Thursday night that the document was released by a low-level staffer.

The ethics committee is one of the most secretive panels in Congress, and its members and staff members sign oaths not to disclose any activities related to its past or present investigations. Watchdog groups have accused the committee of not actively pursuing inquiries; the newly disclosed document indicates the panel is conducting far more investigations than it had revealed.

Shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, the committee chairman, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), interrupted a series of House votes to alert lawmakers about the breach. She cautioned that some of the panel's activities are preliminary and not a conclusive sign of inappropriate behavior.

"No inference should be made as to any member," she said.

Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican, said the breach was an isolated incident.

The 22-page "Committee on Standards Weekly Summary Report" gives brief summaries of ethics panel investigations of the conduct of 19 lawmakers and a few staff members. It also outlines the work of the new Office of Congressional Ethics, a quasi-independent body that initiates investigations and provides recommendations to the ethics committee. The document indicated that the office was reviewing the activities of 14 other lawmakers. Some were under review by both ethics bodies.

On Friday, Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she was "pleasantly surprised" to learn that the ethics committee is scrutinizing so many lawmakers, but she cautioned that launching an investigation is only a start.

"The real question is whether any of the members under investigation will ever be held accountable for their conduct," Sloan said in a statement. "The committee's record on such matters is dismal."

A broader inquiry

Ethics committee investigations are not uncommon. Most result in private letters that either exonerate or reprimand a member. In some rare instances, the censure is more severe.

Many of the broad outlines of the cases cited in the July document are known -- the committee announced over the summer that it was reviewing lawmakers with connections to the now-closed PMA Group, a lobbying firm. But the document indicates that the inquiry was broader than initially believed. It included a review of seven lawmakers on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee who have steered federal money to the firm's clients and have also received large campaign contributions.

The document also disclosed that:

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