THE HOUSE ethics committee dropped a bombshell last Thursday when it recommended that Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) be expelled from the House. Mr. Biaggi had been convicted in September in a Brooklyn federal court on charges of accepting an illegal gift and obstruction of justice. The ethics committee, in its report released Monday, relied on the uncontested evidence that came out in trial in making its recommendation. It showed that former Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito paid for vacations for Mr. Biaggi in St. Maarten and Florida, and in the latter case for a woman companion as well. Mr. Biaggi did not disclose these gifts, as required by the Ethics in Government Act. It also showed that Mr. Biaggi contacted New York City Mayor Ed Koch, members of Congress and Navy and Coast Guard officials in efforts to win military contracts for a firm that was a client of Mr. Esposito's.
The ethics committee decided that Mr. Biaggi's acceptance of favors violated House rules, that his failure to disclose these gifts violated federal law and, on the basis of wiretapped telephone conversations with Mr. Esposito in which Mr. Biaggi tried to cover up his violations, that he was attempting to obstruct justice. These acts violated the House rule requiring every member to "conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives." We have criticized the ethics committee recently for being overly cautious and protective of House members. But in this case it has recommended the harshest possible penalty -- expulsion. Members can be expelled only by a two-thirds vote, and only four House members have been expelled in history.
Mr. Biaggi argues that he should not be expelled until after he has a chance to appeal his conviction. But the House's decision on whether to expel a member should not necessarily depend on whether a criminal conviction is obtained or sustained on appeal. Members should examine the evidence themselves and are free to make inferences and draw conclusions based on their own experience and knowledge. They are not bound by the conclusions drawn by a jury or an appeals court.
Mr. Biaggi does not deny the facts that the ethics committee sets out; he only asks that different conclusions be drawn from them and that a more lenient punishment, a reprimand, be voted. We think there is plenty of evidence to support the committee's conclusion and recommendation that Mr. Biaggi has abused his trust and should be expelled. The House should act on the committee's recommendation and not wait for the appeals process.