In the 108th Congress, Mollohan and Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the former ethics chairman, relied on rule 15(f) in declining to investigate whether DeLay was involved in the diversion of $600,000 in corporate campaign donations in 2002 from a Texas political action committee he founded to Republican state candidates. DeLay was later indicted by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle in the case and was forced to step down as House Majority Leader.
The Senate Ethics Committee has already been told by the Justice Department to steer clear of any Abramoff-related investigations that could interfere with DOJ’s criminal probe.
But Democrats and government watchdog groups insist that the committee can look into the Ney and DeLay cases without infringing on the federal criminal investigation.
“Those who claim that the committees can take no action while the Department of Justice is investigating potential criminal violations misconstrue the main purpose of the Congressional ethics process,” said the Congressional Ethics Coalition in statement last month. “There is a difference between the investigation and prosecution of a criminal violation and upholding the high ethics standards in Congress. Successful ethics committee investigations occurred during past congressional scandals, such as ABSCAM and Koreagate, that involved potential criminal conduct being investigated by the Justice Department.”
Beyond possible probes of Ney and DeLay, the ethics committee’s workload could well increase in the months ahead.
Democrats are quietly exploring whether to file an ethics complaint against Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Resources Committee, according to Democratic sources. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is among those who have publicly suggested that Pombo warrants an ethics probe, although she has no involvement with the current, behind-the-scenes maneuvering in drafting a complaint against Pombo, said Democratic sources.
A litany of questions have been raised about Pombo’s activities going back several years, including recent media reports about a summer 2003 tour of national parks by Pombo. The California Republican billed the Resources Committee nearly $5,000 for the trip, which he and his family took in a rented RV.
The House Administration Committee, at the request of Pombo and two Democratic lawmakers, is also looking into $87,000 that one of Pombo’s top aides has been reimbursed for travel between California and Capitol Hill. Pombo made the request in January following a Contra Costa Times story on Steven Ding, chief of staff for the Resources Committee.
In addition, Pombo had ties to Abramoff, receiving $54,500 in campaign contributions from Abramoff or American Indian tribes he lobbied for. Since Abramoff’s plea deals, Pombo has donated $7,000 he received directly from Abramoff to charity.
Pombo has called allegations that he engaged in any unethical behavior “entirely false.”
In the meantime, the ethics committee, which has finally hired additional investigators in response to pressure from Mollohan, is expected to formally approve a subcommittee to investigate Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in the next few weeks.