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Congressional Ethics Probes Gained Steam During Recess

Fattah, right, was in federal court over recess, pleading not guilty to conspiracy charges in a long-running DOJ probe. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

From lurid exchanges about partying with underage prostitutes to subpoenas for congressional Gmail, members of Congress under scrutiny from the Justice Department and ethics investigators couldn't catch a break during August recess.  

With fresh speculation from Sen. Robert Menendez that Cuban agents planted salacious stories to stymie his political career, the high-profile probe of the New Jersey Democrat gained steam. Justice Department prosecutors rejected defense arguments that their case was tainted by unfounded claims Menendez and his longtime supporter Salomon Melgen solicited underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. In its response , the DOJ did not explicitly state the sexual misconduct investigation came up empty.  

“While those allegations have not resulted in any criminal charges, there can be no question that the Government has an obligation to take such allegations regarding potential harm to minors very seriously, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators may be,” the Aug. 24 filing stated.  

Menendez has bristled at the DOJ's strategy.  

"There isn’t a shred of evidence to support any allegation that the senator was involved with prostitutes – of any age – and the government knows it.  They also know that none of their salacious reading material is related to the case," spokeswoman Tricia Enright stated in an email to CQ Roll Call.  

When Congress returned to Washington Tuesday, lawyers for Menendez notified the court they might disclose classified information regarding the involvement of a foreign intelligence service in planting allegations against Menendez "in an effort to discredit him for his foreign policy and national security views."  

Rep. Chaka Fattah has also suggested the racketeering conspiracy charges he faces are part of a politically motivated attack on his family, aimed at tarnishing the Pennsylvania Democrat's 30-year career in public service.  

After insisting his innocence at the Capitol before recess, Fattah appeared before a U.S. District Court judge in Philadelphia on Aug. 18 and pleaded not guilty.  

Federal authorities announced a 29-count indictment  involving Fattah days before House members deserted the Capitol. It alleged the congressman and his associates orchestrated schemes intended to boost their bank accounts and political ambitions — including Fattah's 2007 mayoral bid — by misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal, charitable and campaign funds.  

Fattah was released after the hearing on $100,000 personal recognizance bail, but his return to the Hill will be complicated  by a pending House Ethics probe  and court orders. A "stay away" order bars Fattah from communicating with potential witnesses, including Sen. Bob Casey , D-Pa., Rep. Ted Deutch , D-Fla., former staffers and campaign aides.  

Prosecutors have argued against modifying the judge's order. Sweeping aside Fattah's concern it will impair his defense, they also rejected his interpretation of the order. They claim he should be strictly prohibited from contacting potential witnesses, including congressional colleagues and former employees, regardless of whether a lawyer is listening to the conversation.  

With legal bills mounting, Fattah asked the House Ethics Committee for approval to establish a legal defense fund. It granted approval on Sept. 4, according to his spokeswoman, and Fattah established a site to solicit donations.  

On Sept. 16, the judge will consider a motion to modify the order. Five days later, the judge is set to consider a motion from prosecutors that would prohibit Fattah’s legal team from introducing evidence of “purported prior good acts” to the jury when the trial starts in May 2016. In the meantime, the investigation could alienate Fattah from fellow Democrats.  

In addition to legal volleys between prosecutors and defense attorneys for Fattah and Menendez, Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., spent more than $60,000 on legal services to fight an ethics claim related to his campaign. Honda hired attorneys from two prominent Washington law firms and a California public relations firm to respond to a controversy surrounding a potential House Ethics Committee probe into improper coordination between his campaign and official staff.  

On Sept. 3, the committee announced plans to extend its review of the allegations raised by a former staffer.  

An Office of Congressional Ethics report on the matter included internal emails that show Honda’s longtime chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, and his then-campaign coordinator, Lamar Heystek, strategizing to invite campaign contributors to a State Department roundtable. The report shows staff researched campaign contribution histories of potential invitees to cull names, potentially violating rules prohibiting coordination between campaign and official staff.  

Honda has asked for patience as the review runs its course, and attributed the problems to sloppy clerical work. “Even though the House Rules permit congressional staff to volunteer on their member’s campaign, I’ve erected a firewall in my office prohibiting this activity," he said in a statement.  

Similar allegations landed former Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., in a probe that this week resulted in a guilty plea . GOP consultant Brett O'Donnell, who has advised Mitt Romney and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., admitted in a Sept. 3 plea agreement he lied to OCE investigators about his role on Broun's campaign. Congress' break also included squabbling over the House Ethics Committee's decision not to release a 70-page OCE report on foreign-sponsored travel to Azerbaijan. Watchdogs are pressuring the committee to release more of the report, which has been turned over to DOJ. The committee cleared the nine lawmakers of wrongdoing, but stated it found evidence of possible criminal efforts by trip planners to conceal the source of the travel.  

Related: Justice Department Ready to Rumble With Menendez House Ethics Committee Extends Review of Mike Honda Ethics Battle Still Brewing Over Azerbaijan Travel Court Orders in Chaka Fattah Case Could Complicate Life in Congress See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.