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‘Admonishment’ Is Not Covered by Ethics Rules

“The House ethics rules are not really as strict as a judicial criminal code where you have to have very specific violations spelled out, and if the allegation doesn’t really fit within the very narrow confines of the prescribed penalty, then it can’t be imposed,” he added.

Although the committee has previously utilized the term “admonishment” in its reprimands to lawmakers — including a 1995 investigation into Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) involving personal loans from his campaign committee that he failed to report on his financial disclosure forms — several legal experts contend it was a 2004 ethics committee decision involving DeLay that altered its usage to a punishment, and not a mere warning.

In that decision, the ethics panel admonished DeLay and Reps. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and Nick Smith (R-Mich.) for their conduct on the House floor during a protracted vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill.

In language similar to the Rangel decision, the ethics committee wrote at that time: “It is the intention of this Investigative Subcommittee that publication of this Report will serve as a public admonishment by the Committee to Representative Smith, Representative Miller and Majority Leader DeLay regarding their conduct in this matter.”

That shift in language is significant, noted Ted Van Der Meid, a former top House ethics aide now at McKenna Long & Aldridge, in part because of its potential for misinterpretation.

“It does have significance, in part because the public does not understand the difference between the word admonishment as a punishment and other more traditional forms of punishment like a letter of reproval or a reprimand,” Van Der Meid said.

Attorney Elliot Berke, who served as DeLay’s counsel at the time of the investigation, on Tuesday criticized the committee’s use of informal admonishments.

“While it may seem that the ethics committee is doing a Member a service when it ends the process before the adjudicatory and sanction phases, the reality is that a Member who is ‘admonished’ is widely, and sometimes wrongly, perceived to have violated the rules,” Berke said Tuesday.

“This concept of an admonishment can be unfair to the Member under investigation, especially when some sort of repayment is required,” he added. “The Member is forced to accept the result and pay a fine without having the ability to argue his or her case as part of the ethics process.”

During the formal sanction process, counsel for both the Member and the committee submit written or oral recommendations to the ethics panel about what sanctions should be applied to the Member.

An attorney at the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, which represented Rangel in the ethics investigation, did not return a telephone call Tuesday, but the New York Democrat criticized the ethics committee’s determination in a Friday statement.

“The report’s errors could have been avoided if the Committee had not adopted its conclusions before giving Congressman Rangel an opportunity to respond,” the statement read.

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