Bad news for Democrats in revelation of ethics probes
NEW DETAILS ON TWO CHAIRMEN Critics surprised by a prolific panel

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

After years of criticism that congressional lawmakers were reluctant to investigate their colleagues, the disclosure in recent days of a sensitive document from the House ethics committee offers the contradictory portrait of a panel actively pursuing a range of probes even as Democrats under scrutiny remain in positions of power.

The 22-page document revealed that the ethics committee, as of late July, was looking into the activities of at least 19 lawmakers, including reviews of home mortgages and interviews about corporate-backed trips for members of Congress to Caribbean resorts. Combined with the inquiries being conducted by a new ethics office, the document showed a far more robust set of investigations than previously revealed.

But the document also brings potential political peril for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose party claimed the majority in November 2006 after she promised to "drain the swamp" of corruption on Capitol Hill. Two and a half years into Pelosi's reign, more than 25 Democrats have been targeted for ethics reviews by the two ethics bodies, while just seven Republicans appeared to be under scrutiny, according to the document.

Republicans have criticized Pelosi for declining to take away power from close allies such as Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). Both are powerful chairmen who were previously known to be under investigation, but the new document offered greater detail about those probes.

Rangel said in an interview he was interviewed by the ethics committee about a trip he took to a Caribbean resort that may have been underwritten by corporate interests. Such privately financed trips were forbidden under rules Pelosi pushed shortly after taking over in 2007. Rangel said the interview did not cover other allegations about his personal finances.

Release of the document, which was provided to The Washington Post by a source with no connection to the ethics committee or Congress, provided an unexpected window into the inner workings of the committee, which has operated in secrecy for decades.

The scope of its activities provided a counterpoint to critics who have questioned whether the panel -- made up of six Democrats, six Republicans and a staff of fewer than 10 lawyers -- has taken its work seriously. Ethics watchdogs, who have spent more than a decade pummeling the House and Senate ethics committees, offered rare praise for the House panel and the new Office of Congressional Ethics.

"Both groups are seriously pursuing their ethics responsibilities at this stage," six groups said in a joint statement.

But the revelations have also triggered new sensitivities for the ethics committee, which is formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Some lawyers have privately wondered whether the disclosures could damage cases the committee was pursuing. And lawmakers questioned the panel's professionalism for allowing a now-dismissed junior staffer to take the document home and accidentally load it onto a computer that was using peer-to-peer technology, opening all her files to everyone logged into that network.

The leaders of the ethics committee, Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) alerted colleagues Thursday evening and cautioned that some newly revealed cases could just be cursory reviews by staff members. However, the nearly three dozen cases in the confidential report come under the heading "Investigative Issues of Significance."

Watchdog work

The document covered every activity undertaken by the ethics committee staff for the week of July 27, revealing a hefty workload ranging from complex legal work to mundane requests from congressional staff. One lawyer, for example, fielded 21 phone calls from aides seeking guidance on House rules, reviewed 43 travel requests for staff members or lawmakers hoping to be in sync with chamber rules and reviewed seven financial disclosure forms.

A senior aide to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) asked whether a lawmaker and aide, while visiting a private ranch on a fact-finding trip, could accept horseback rides from the owner so they could traverse the massive ranch. That was ap proved by a committee lawyer.

The chief of staff for Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) asked if it was permissible to use official congressional e-mail to alert citizens outside his eastern Iowa district to lobby other members of Congress on a particular issue. Staff rejected this request, saying it would break the "prohibition on members conducting and assisting outside lobbying of Congress."

Committee inquiries rarely become public, only at the most serious stages. Some reprimands are private. Only in recent years has the committee published biannual reports documenting the number of ongoing investigations.

The system is meant to protect innocent lawmakers from the political fallout of being identified as under investigation in cases that are not substantial, according to Robert Walker, a former counsel for the House and Senate ethics committees. He rejected criticism that the panel did not conduct enough inquiries.

"The House ethics committee has historically engaged in a number of ongoing investigations on a regular basis. Many groups may not be willing to acknowledge that, but they did occur," he said.

A new ethics enforcer

Most watchdog groups credited a spike in committee activity to the Office of Congressional Ethics, a semi-independent body that conducts investigations and makes recommendations to the full ethics committee. Only the committee retains the power to punish a lawmaker.

The OCE's creation came after a more than yearlong negotiation between Pelosi and many Democrats and Republicans who objected to a new ethics body.

Now in its first year of existence, the OCE operates with a mandate of speedy probes and public dissemination of information. It is run by a former federal prosecutor who helped send Enron executives to prison and a former Air Force prosecutor who tried terrorists.

The newly released document hints at the uneasy coexistence of the ethics committee and OCE. That relationship hit a bump last week after the committee dismissed a potential case referred from the ethics office.

OCE investigators had found that a Republican lawmaker probably broke rules by inviting his wife's business partner to testify at a hearing, but the ethics committee unanimously dismissed the case and rebuked the OCE for misunderstanding House rules.

The most persistent critics of the ethics committee said the decision was more evidence of lawmakers declining to police their colleagues. But they also expressed mixed emotions after release of the document.

"We were pleasantly surprised to learn the ethics committee is investigating so many members of Congress, but starting an investigation isn't enough. The real question is whether any of the members under investigation will ever be held accountable for their conduct," said Melanie Sloan, founder of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company