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House Leaders Have a Fiduciary Duty to Protect the Institution

That is only one item on the list for fiduciary action on the part of Pelosi and Boehner. Another is the integrity of the ethics process — a particularly important priority given the impending issues involving some of the most powerful Members of the House. Whatever action, if any, is taken against Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.), it is critical that the broader community sees the ethics process as fair — neither an “old boy network” trying to let big fish off the hook nor a group of people out for a partisan vendetta.

But the process is under a cloud via the unfortunate public flap between the House ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and the independent Office of Congressional Ethics over one case referred by the former to the latter, that of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) The OCE had sent a report to the ethics committee several weeks ago, with a detailed body of testimony and evidence, saying that there was reason to believe Graves had committed a substantive violation of House standards. Forty-five days later, the ethics panel exercised its prerogatives under House rules to take another 45 days to review the report — but also issued a public broadside against the OCE, saying in effect that the OCE’s unanimous recommendation for further action in this case had been polluted by its withholding information from Graves and his lawyers that might have been exculpatory.

That is a truly inflammatory charge. It has been forcefully rebutted by the co-chairmen of the OCE, former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), joined by all their colleagues, with a joint statement noting that the information in question was either in Graves’ or his lawyers’ possession or not pertinent to the OCE’s findings; indeed, in some cases, the information cited had come from Graves or his staffers.

This is a particularly curious case, given that the issue here is whether Graves called a witness to testify who was a business partner with Graves’ wife, on an issue related to that business, and did not disclose the relationship — and that this was the second time Graves had done this, and he said after the first incident that he had made a mistake! So there seems to be a violation of standards on its face.

But there might be mitigating circumstances. And the very public charge of bad faith or malfeasance on the part of the OCE is so serious that we need to be sure that the full report that the OCE submitted to the ethics committee is released on the timetable that House rules require, which in this case would be Oct. 31. Then objective observers can look at what the OCE sent to the ethics panel and judge the facts.

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