Ethics Panel in Limbo

Posted January 26, 2005 at 6:41pm

The fate of House ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) remains up in the air nearly a month into the 109th Congress.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has yet to name a replacement for Hefley, and the Colorado Republican has not been officially informed that he is out, although senior GOP lawmakers and aides insist that is the case. Hefley, in fact, has not spoken to Hastert or his aides since mid-December. “I think they’re going to replace me with someone else, but I don’t really know,” Hefley said in an interview this week.

No announcement from Hastert is expected until next week at the earliest, according to his office.

The names of Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas) and Doc Hastings (Wash.) have been floated in the press as potential replacements for Hefley, but Hastert is giving no clues who his choice is, not even to other top Republicans.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday formally reappointed Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) for another term as ranking member of the ethics committee. Although Pelosi has not named the other four Democratic choices for the bipartisan panel, Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio), Gene Green (Texas), Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.) and Mike Doyle (Pa.) are all likely to return as well, said Democratic sources.

With no chairman or Republican members yet appointed, the ethics panel, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, cannot engage in any activity, including moving forward in its ongoing investigations.

For instance, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who has attracted public scrutiny from the panel over his involvement with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, has yet to be interviewed in the informal probe the panel is conducting.

The committee also initiated informal investigations of Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) last year.

In addition, an ethics complaint was filed two months ago against Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) over McDermott’s involvement in an illegally recorded conversation in December 1996 between House GOP leaders. A special investigation subcommittee chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), with Roybal-Allard as the top Democrat, has been established to look into that matter. It is unclear what the status of that investigation is at this time.

“We can’t do any business,” Hefley said. The Colorado Republican added that the committee can engage only in “administrative matters” at this point, such as paying its staff.

Under House rules, Hefley technically cannot be appointed to another term on ethics unless Hastert were to seek a waiver through a floor vote. Hefley was appointed to the ethics committee in September 1997, and while not covering a full Congress his service on the committee during the second session of the 105th Congress counts as a full term. House rules stipulate that Members must rotate off the ethics committee after four terms.

Hefley also angered GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers for his handling of an ethics complaint filed against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Republicans were privately furious at the veteran lawmaker, saying he gave in to a political witch hunt by Democrats and government watchdog groups when he supported public admonishment of the powerful Majority Leader.

But Hefley remains adamant that he acted in the only way possible in his handling of the DeLay case, as well as the investigation of charges by then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) of “bribery” and “special deals” being handed out by GOP leaders during a controversial Medicare vote last Congress.

“I’m not second-guessing myself on what we did,” said Hefley. “We did the right thing.”