As former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff prepares to go before a federal judge on Wednesday, the top lawmakers on the House ethics committee have been quietly trying to figure out how to break a partisan deadlock and begin proceeding with the sizable backlog of cases facing the panel.
Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the committee’s chairman and ranking member, respectively, met to discuss the panel’s direction shortly before the House left for the weeklong St. Patrick’s Day recess, and more talks are expected soon, GOP and Democratic sources say.
Neither Hastings nor Mollohan would comment on the substance of their discussions or the timing of a possible resolution of the long-standing dispute that has paralyzed the committee during this Congress.
But one question their negotiations will certainly have to cover is whether the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct can investigate any matter related to Abramoff.
The former lobbyist is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday in a case growing out of his September 2000 purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a Florida-based casino cruise-ship company. Abramoff and a former business partner, Adam Kidan, have admitted to fraudulently claiming that they put $23 million of their own money into the deal. Abramoff faces slightly more than seven years in prison under his plea agreement with the Justice Department.
Federal prosecutors said on Friday that they want to talk to Abramoff and Kidan about the Feb. 2001 murder of Gus Boulis, the man they bought SunCruz from. Both men have denied any knowledge of the events surrounding Boulis’ death, although Kidan has ties to three individuals charged by Florida authorities in the case.
More importantly for Capitol Hill, Abramoff has also pleaded guilty to overseeing a bribery scheme that involved showering gifts, trips, campaign donations and employment of relatives on Members of Congress and their staff in exchange for performing “official acts” that benefited Abramoff’s lobbying clients. Abramoff will be sentenced in that case in June.
While some Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have called for ethics probes of Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the House ethics committee has traditionally shied away from looking into any matter already under scrutiny by the Justice Department. Ney and DeLay are currently being investigated by the Justice Department in its ongoing Abramoff probe.
Both GOP lawmakers themselves have called on the ethics committee to look into the propriety of overseas trips they took with Abramoff.
Under the ethics committee’s rule 15(f), the panel “may defer action on a complaint against a Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives when the complaint alleges conduct that the Committee has reason to believe is being reviewed by appropriate law enforcement or regulatory authorities, or when the Committee determines that it is appropriate for the conduct alleged in the complaint to be reviewed initially by law enforcement or regulatory authorities.”
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.
Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) filed a complaint against McDermott during the previous Congress over McDermott’s role in leaking an illegally taped 1997 phone call between House GOP leaders. An investigative subcommittee was approved at that time, but during the 15-month partisan stalemate that froze the committee during the 109th Congress, the panel has not voted on the issue again. A proposal still has to be made at a full ethics committee meeting to reauthorize that investigative subcommittee, and House insiders expect that to take place in several weeks.
Separately, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) faces a potential ethics probe over whether he and his aides improperly conducted partisan political activities out of his Detroit office during 2002 and 2003. The ethics committee began an informal probe of Conyers two years ago, but he and his staff refused to voluntarily comply with requests for information from the ethics panel, several sources said. Democrats have privately predicted for months that Conyers will face an investigative subcommittee over the matter.