Though government watchdog groups had pushed for the hiring of an outside counsel this week in the wake of the leaked memorandums, experts said having Martin deliver his findings to the committee that he is investigating could prove problematic. The leaked memos indicate there might have been improper communications between the staffers handling the Waters case and Bonner and panel member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
“When you find evidence of wrongdoing by Ethics Committee members, where do you go?” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Though there are no past examples to serve as a template, attorneys familiar with the ethics process said there are several ways the Ethics Committee could react if Martin’s report reveals internal wrongdoing.
“If Martin identifies issues that touch individual members of the full committee, then those members might have to recuse themselves from consideration of his findings. If he identifies issues that touch a significant number of members, or that touch the leadership of the committee, then that might compromise the ability of the full committee to review and implement his findings,” Kelner said.
If there is evidence of pervasive misconduct, a special counsel could bypass the Ethics Committee altogether and deliver the report straight to House leadership, experts said.
While government watchdog groups applauded the committee’s decision to appoint a special counsel, many said the House should use the opportunity to further reform the ethics process by strengthening the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
The OCE can investigate complaints of wrongdoing within the House but does not have the ability to act on its conclusions. Its reports are sent to the Ethics Committee for further action, up to and including punishment.
“Given what has happened again at the House Ethics Committee, we need a strengthened Office of Congressional Ethics and we need them to play a larger role in the process,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.