The House ethics committee recessed its disciplinary hearing against Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-Calif.) yesterday without deliberating on a verdict, after his defense attorney asked for a delay because members of the committee had missed parts of the testimony.
Chairman Charles Bennett (D-Fla.) said closing arguments in the financial misconduct case against Wilson will be heard after members return from Easter recess April 15. In the meantime, members who missed the hearings will have a chance to review the transcript, he said.
Wilson's attorney, Walter J. Bonner, raised the issue after he rested his defense having called only two witnesses to rebut charges that the congressman broke House rules by converting campaign funds to personal use and by taking kickbacks from a staff aide.
"Your procedures are sadly deficient," Bonner told the committee, noting that several members missed large chunks of the testimony. "Where I come from it is unheard of for any jury to judge guilt or innocence when the jurors are missing."
While members of the committee head home for recess, Wilson will hold a $150-a-person fund-raising affair here Thursday evening at the Democratic Club. Wilson, 63, is seeking reelection to his 10th term.
He is facing strong opposition in the June 3 Democratic primary from both former representative Mark Hananaford, who moved from an adjoining district to challenge him, and Mervyn Dymally, the former lieutenant governor of California.
The invitation to the fund-raiser notes that Wilson will be returning to a position of "even greater influence" in Congress. A Wilson aide said this was a reference to moving up in seniority on the House Armed Services and Post Office committees because of retirements. "This translates into a greater input and an increased ability to get things done," the letter said.
Bonner's attack on procedures yesterday was the latest in a series challenging the committee for acting both as grand jury in voting the charges and then as the supposedly impartial jury hearing the evidence. If the committee finds Wilson guilty, it will then recommend a penalty to the full House.
Bonner said after the hearing that he felt committee counsel Steven R. Wisebram failed to prove any of the 15 charges against his client. He said he is prepared to continue to fight what he termed the committee's lack of "due process" in the federal courts if necessary.
Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), a veteran committee member and a former federal judge said after the hearing that he agreed there are problems with the committee's procedures. He said delaying deliberations so missing members could read the hearing transcript was unsatisfactory, because "it's not the same as being here. You don't get to observe the demeanor of the witness."
Preyer is one of several members of the committee who have sponsored a resolution that would set up juries, drawn by lot from the full House membership, for disciplinary hearings. "That would involve the House proper more and perhaps make them feel more responsible for what we do," Preyer said.
The most interesting witness for yesterday's hearing was the one who didn't show up, Robert Fordiani, manager of Wilson's West Coast office. Wisebram announced he had failed to answer the committee's subpoena. Rep. Robert Livingston (D-La.) said he would have more to say about that in the future, an apparent reference to a possible contempt citation.