Staffing Dispute Hampers Probe

Posted May 11, 2005 at 6:56pm

Amid a continuing controversy surrounding overseas trips by Members of Congress, the top Republican and Democrat on the ethics committee are still struggling with the status of senior staffers on their panel, as well as searching for a new chief counsel.

If the staffing issue is not resolved soon, it could postpone for several weeks the start of an ethics probe into trips taken by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), even though Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the ethics committee’s chairman, had hoped to move quickly on the matter, said sources close to the issue.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Wednesday complaining about an effort by Hastings to designate Ed Cassidy, the chief of staff in his personal office, as staff director on the ethics panel. Pelosi, who served for seven years on the ethics committee herself, believes that such a move would violate panel requirements that all staff be nonpartisan.

Pelosi also suggested that the dispute over Cassidy’s role with the committee could spill over into the hiring of a new, permanent chief counsel for the panel.

“Clearly, hiring new counsel — which under the [committee] rules must be done on a bipartisan basis — cannot proceed until there is an assurance that the Committee’s professional staff will be continue to be a nonpartisan staff,” Pelosi wrote.

John Vargo was ousted earlier this year as chief counsel by Hastings and the other GOP members of the committee. For now, Kenneth Kellner is serving as acting chief counsel.

A Hastert aide said the Speaker was staying out of the dispute, leaving Hastings and Mollohan to settle it. “The Speaker believes that it’s up to the ethics committee who they hire,” said Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s spokesman.

Hastings is continuing to negotiate with Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel’s ranking member, to resolve the lingering staff dispute. The two are expected to meet today, and Hastings is expected to make an offer to address Mollohan’s concerns, said sources close to the issue.

Hastings wants to avoid a repeat of the long battle over GOP-drafted ethics rules changes that prevented the committee from organizing during the March and April, preferring to settle this dispute privately. Even so, the Evergreen State Republican views Cassidy’s role with the committee as critical as he moves to assert his authority over the panel.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mollohan said the ethics committee rules are “simple and forthright” — namely, Cassidy and Mary McCarty, Hastings’ own liaison to the committee, can have no authority over the professional staff of the ethics committee. The two are allowed to monitor its activities and report back to the chairman and ranking member, but they cannot issue any directives or orders to investigators or other professional staff.

“The rules are simple, their intent is clear, and the mischief that can happen if you operate outside the rules is clearly apparent,” Mollohan said.

Once the staffing issue is settled, Hastings plans to begin a new, informal inquiry of DeLay under the committee’s own authority, possibly as early as next week. Kellner would be assigned to produce a report for Hastings and Mollohan on the allegations against DeLay while the search for a new chief counsel continues.

The allegations against DeLay in this new probe are based largely upon media reports that DeLay and his former aides took several overseas trips that were paid for, at least in part, by former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Registered lobbyists and lobbying firms are not allowed to pay for travel by lawmakers or Congressional staff, even if later reimbursed by an authorized entity, such as a nonprofit group. DeLay has repeatedly said that all of his trips were made in compliance with House rules, and he has welcomed an investigation by the ethics panel into the matter.

If Mollohan insists that the informal DeLay inquiry be turned over to a new chief counsel, rather than Kellner, or that additional professional investigators be hired prior to that step being taken, it could take weeks, or even a month, before the probe of the Texas Republican begins. Hastings would like to avoid that long a lag, but Mollohan is concerned about the committee initiating a probe before its staffing needs are fulfilled.

“We have zero investigators right now — zero,” said Mollohan. While not addressing the DeLay case specifically, the West Virginia Democrat added that he was “not setting any preconditions” to the committee beginning its operations, other than it hire more staff to handle the heavy workload it now faces.

“Those skill sets are not easy to come by,” Mollohan said of ethics investigators, citing a need for trial experience, a nonpartisan background and the willingness to work with a wide variety of colleagues.

The staffing controversy at ethics is already having an impact on the panel’s operations, and Republicans privately believe that Democrats are “slow-walking” ethics matters to drag out the political pressure on DeLay and the GOP Conference. “They are really stringing this out for maximum political impact,” said a senior House Republican aide. Mollohan strongly denied any such intentions by Democrats.

A move to reauthorize an investigative subcommittee looking into how Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) handled an illegally taped conversation between House GOP leaders in 1997 was postponed at the last meeting of the ethics committee due to disagreements over the staffing situation, said several sources familiar with the panel’s deliberations. The McDermott investigative subcommittee began its work last year, but the full ethics committee must vote to continue it in the 109th Congress, and that vote has yet to take place.

There was another development in the burgeoning travel scandal on Wednesday.

Hastert, in a radio interview with Tony Snow of Fox News on Wednesday, said he wants the ethics committee to be more involved in reviewing and approving trips by Members and staff prior to their start. Hastert’s idea is to create a “clearinghouse” to pre-approve such trips, and then let the ethics committee investigate alleged abuses of the travel rules by GOP and Democratic lawmakers individually as they are revealed.

“Well, I think what the ethics committee ought to do is look at these things and get an idea what the problem is,” Hastert told Snow. “And I don’t think people want to break rules on purpose — especially not a Member of Congress. There’s too much at stake. So, you know, what was the problem? Why didn’t people file these things? And what can we do as a simple, easy way to get them a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on this type of travel? And I think that’s what we can do.”

Hastert has been in discussions with Hastings over an enhanced role for the ethics committee on travel.

One idea under discussion in Republican circles would be to have groups that are funding these trips — such as nonprofit organizations, trade associations or corporations — certify to the ethics committee in writing that none of the funds used to pay for the trips came from registered lobbyists or lobbying firms.

Hastert also slammed Democrats and the media for “piling on” DeLay. “And the fact is — and you just said it — when you start to really go into it, Tom didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” said Hastert, a close DeLay ally, in the Snow interview. DeLay “thought he was cleared on those trips. He thought that these things were being funded by a legitimate organization. But now, when you get back into the records, wasn’t necessarily so. That’s what I know about it. And that’s how I perceive it.”