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Congress under ethics inquiry: defense panel scrutinized

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Carol Leonnig
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, October 30, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Carol Leonnig was online Friday, Oct. 30, at Noon ET to discuss an accidental disclosure by way of a file-sharing network of a House ethics committee investigation alleging that activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several aides are being scrutinized for issues including defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling.

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Washington, D.C.: Exactly how did the Post acquire the document?

Carol Leonnig: Hello readers and viewers,

I'm Carol Leonnig, a reporter on the National Desk and sorry for my late entry to the chat. Let's get to your questions on this story about ethics investigations going on on the Hill.

The Post obtained this document because, as the House ethics committee has now confirmed, a more junior staffer had this document on their computer along with some peer-to-peer software that essentially made the document accessible to public viewing. A source familiar with those kinds of networks brought this to the Post's attention.

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Spokane, Wash.: Were all of the members of Congress who are under investigation named in the report? And if so, what names were there in addition to those mentioned in your story?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Spokane,

The question you ask is a good one, and you will see on our website, www.washingtonpost.com , this morning some additional information on other lawmakers identified in the document. We are being very careful in how we handle this information and making sure we do our proper research on each allegation the committee lists as under review, and make contact with members and other key sources to determine how to handle this information. So I think you can expect to hear more about others identified in the document, as you already can see from more information posted this morning.

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Arlington, Va.: Do we know the indentity of the junior staffer that posted the document on the publicly avaialble Web site? Is there any chance this was intentional?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Arlington,

There has been a lot of speculation that this was a leak. Indeed, some lawmakers are very concerned about that possibility. However, the Post's sources indicate this was a mistake, although in violation of the committee staff's rules for care in safeguarding this very confidential material, but not intentional.

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Dallas, Tex.: So was this a firing offense? Is this considered whistle-blowing? This is a great example of the lack of transparency of those who are supposed to be serving us. Great reporting, thanks!

Carol Leonnig: Dear Dallas,

It appears this is a firing offense. Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren and ranking member Jo Bonner, of the House ethics committee, confirmed late last night that they have terminated the employee whose use of peer-to-peer sharing software compromised the presumed confidentiality of the ethics investigations.

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Burlington, Mass.: Will you publish the entire 30 names please?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Burlington,

As I said earlier, the Post reporters and editors are handling this document and its contents with the utmost care. We recognize, and have made clear in our discussions with the ethics committee leaders and the implicated lawmakers, that these investigations are typically handled in a significant amount of secrecy,at least until action is taken or deadlines for action by the committee are triggered. We want to be sure we do our share of fairly and evenly reporting deeper into the allegations and contact the lawmakers in question before publishing information about allegations in the document we obtained.

Stay tuned. You can see more lawmakers' identified in some stories posted this morning. I think you may expect to see more as the Post does its due diligence on each case.

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washingtonpost.com: Dozens in Congress under ethics inquiry (Post, Oct. 30)

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Cobb Island, Md.: What are the journalistic ethical issues did you and WaPo have to consider in regarding obtaining and publishing the information in the file?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Cobb Island,

As with many sensitive stories The Post reports on that involve the reputations of public officials and ongoing investigations, we reporters have to weigh many considerations in publishing this material. Sources provide many things to the Post. But we have a lot of questions to ask before we decide we should print. Is the information accurate? Does the material in hand leave out something important that we need to further report to give the fullest and most balanced picture? There are others, but this gives you a flavor.

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Charleston, W.Va.: Was there further information about Alan Mollohan -- the reason Justice gave for asking Ethics to suspend its investigation; whether Ethics provided documents to Justice; other?

Carol Leonnig: Dear W. Va:

I'd steer to you what we've published thus far.

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Crystal City, Va.: "...whose use of peer-to-peer sharing software compromised the presumed confidentiality of the ethics investigations." The V.A. loses millions of SSN numbers, DOD systems are hacked by the Chinese, and now this incident. Do you really want to have the government manage your electronic health records?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Crystal City,

You have an interesting point. Ethics chairwoman Zoe Lofgren told me yesterday afternoon that she has been informed by House technology experts that House cyber security was not compromised in this incident. And later in the evening, she and ranking member Bonner explained the details of how this happened -- a staffer apparently not being very careful with the records. Some argue this proves its always dangerous to take your government work home with you. But I would stress the real problem here appears to have been a file-sharing software that the user has to knowingly add to their computer. It wasn't a case of a password or a network being hacked.

Lofgren told the Post that as with any system, individual error or sloppiness is the "Trojan Horse" of cyber security.

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Brookland Neighborhood, Washington, D.C.: Will you publish the report you are getting this information from so that the public can judge for themselves?

Carol Leonnig: Hello Brookland neighborhood:

This is a frequent question today. Please see my earlier comment to the same question above.

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Arlington, Va.: Rep. Rangel has been under investigation for some time, and has admitted to "forgetting" to report rental income on his taxes, or include $500K on his financial forms, among many other issues. Sen. Stevens was tried last year for "forgetting" to include gifts/income on his financial disclosure forms -- why hasn't the Justice Dept. looked into prosecuting Rangel?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Arlington,

I would suggest you read what we have written so far today on this issue, and stay tuned to more reporting.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: Is there any reason -- other than to protect the guilty -- that information about the ethics committee is kept confidential? The fired staffer should be considered for a medal.

Carol Leonnig: Dear Santa Monica,

There are confidentiality rules that govern the committee members and their staff and what they can say. Those rules were, of course, set by the members of Congress, and one of the criticisms of the ethics committee is that it is very secret, seems somewhat slow in its operations to the outside world, and also appears reluctant to investigate or punish its own. What we learn from this document is that the committee is in some stage of scrutinizing quite a few members, although in most cases it is in the early or fact-gathering stage.

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Carol Leonnig: Well, Post readers, we have to get back to reporting. Thanks for all your interesting questions today. Stay tuned to more developing stories on these investigative probes on our Post website and in our print editions.

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