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House Homeland Security Committee faces ethics inquiry

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By Carol D. Leonnig and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 5, 2009

At a hearing in late March, the nation's credit card companies faced the threat of expensive new rules from an unlikely regulator: the House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

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The committee had never before dealt with credit card issues, but Thompson warned Visa, MasterCard and others that Congress might need to impose tighter security standards costing millions of dollars to protect customers from identity theft.

Behind the scenes, some of Thompson's staff members sensed a different motive -- an attempt to pressure the companies into making political donations to the chairman, according to several former committee staff members.

Now the House ethics committee is investigating the propriety of the committee's operations, and whether its members' interactions with companies compromised its work. Within a few weeks of the hearing, Thompson collected $15,000 in donations from the credit card industry and its Washington-based lobbyists, a Washington Post analysis shows. No legislation on card security has been introduced.

Several former committee staff members, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, have told The Post the hearing on credit cards was one of several committee actions that concerned the staff because of their consideration of potential donors and contractors friendly to Thompson. The current ethics inquiry was prompted this summer, according to an ethics document obtained by The Post, when a former committee aide alleged she was fired after complaining to her bosses that a lobbyist made improper requests to staff members.

Thompson -- who made headlines separately this week by calling a committee hearing to investigate Tareq and Michaele Salahi's ability to get past Secret Service and into a White House state dinner without invitation -- said he did not arrange a hearing to generate campaign donations.

"That's incorrect," he said of the suspicion. "We do hearings all the time -- sometimes we are able to generate legislation earlier, and sometimes we have to [build] a public record."

He said that he has never been told of staff complaints about his hearings, and that he was not aware a committee staff member said she was fired for raising objections about inappropriate lobbyist requests.

"I would assume if discomfort was there with the staff, they would have shared it, " he said. "I have not heard this."

Committee staff director Lanier Avant, who also serves as the congressman's chief of staff, said the credit card hearing was prompted by a data breach at a payment company, Heartland Payment Systems, that compromised the credit information of millions of customers.

Several congressional ethics experts said it could be an ethics violation if a lawmaker or senior staff member arranged a hearing for the purpose of collecting campaign contributions. Proving such a case would be difficult, they said, and investigators would need evidence that a lawmaker intended to use a hearing for fundraising leverage.

Sarah Dufendach, a vice president at Common Cause, said the House ethics committee should take the staff member's allegation seriously, especially because Thompson's office has had a number of staff departures. She questioned whether credit card security was a top committee priority.


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