Outsiders Press Hastert on Ethics

Radio Ads in Illinois Ask Speaker to Break Impasse

Posted June 27, 2005 at 6:28pm

With the staffing standoff at the House ethics committee showing no sign of ending soon, public watchdog groups are stepping up pressure on Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to intervene and end the months-long stalemate.

But Hastert has shown no inclination to intervene in the dispute between Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, despite calls to do so from outside groups and senior Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

Four watchdog groups — Common Cause, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. Public Interest Research Group — plan to send a letter to Hastert today urging him to become personally involved in the ethics fight, which centers on how much authority a top aide to Hastings will have over ethics committee staffers.

In addition, the groups will renew their call for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations that Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) took overseas trips paid for by former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Common Cause will launch a radio ad campaign in Hastert’s district during the July Fourth recess urging constituents to call Hastert’s office and tell him to back an independent counsel for any DeLay probe. The ad buy, costing roughly $10,500, will run during traffic reports over the holiday period, according to Mary Boyle, a Common Cause spokeswoman.

“As Speaker, [Hastert] has the responsibility to maintain the integrity of the House,” Boyle said of the call for an independent counsel to probe DeLay.

A Hastert spokesman dismissed the watchdog groups’ efforts to involve him in the ethics committee fight as misguided.

“The Speaker believes the chairman and ranking member [of the ethics committee] should be able to sit down and figure this situation out,” said Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s communications director. “We’d also be very curious to know what outside money is funding this project.”

Common Cause’s Boyle countered that her organization raised the funds for the ad campaign over the Internet in small donations, including some from Hastert’s district. Roughly 20 of Hastert’s constituents signed today’s letter to the Speaker.

DeLay has vehemently denied the allegations of ethical impropriety in his dealings with Abramoff, stating that his trips to Moscow and Britain were paid for by a legitimate nonprofit organization, the National Center for Public Policy Research, and were in line with House ethics rules on privately funded travel. Abramoff was on the board of NCPPR and accompanied DeLay during the 1997 and 2000 junkets. The powerful Texas Republican has said that he welcomes any ethics committee probe of his actions.

Hastings and Mollohan have been deadlocked for weeks over the role that Ed Cassidy, Hastings’ top aide, will have at the committee. Hastings wants Cassidy to have authority over non-investigative activities of committee staff, arguing that his goal is to make the committee more responsive to Members and staff.

Mollohan has objected, holding that the staff director/chief counsel for the panel should have sole authority over committee staff, as required by House ethics rules. Mollohan has refused to negotiate with Hastings over the issue in recent weeks, thus leaving the committee unable to begin any new investigations nearly seven months into this session.

Each side charges the other is seeking partisan political advantage from the staffing dispute. A senior House GOP aide said Hastings has not had any substantive discussions with Mollohan on the issue since May 12, when the Washington Republican made an offer to use staffing models employed by previous Democratic and GOP chairmen.

The dispute over staffing follows an earlier battle over Republican attempts to unilaterally change House ethics rules to make it easier to dismiss complaints filed against Members by other lawmakers. Hastert and the House GOP leadership had to back down and reverse the rules changes, which were adopted on the first day of the 109th Congress on a party-line vote.

Democrats are expected to offer a privileged resolution this week calling on the ethics committee to resolve the staffing dispute immediately so the committee can return to regular order, according to House Democratic aides.

But Republicans said privately that Mollohan is purposely dragging his feet on the staffing fight in order to ratchet up political pressure on DeLay by making sure no probe of the Majority Leader is finished until next year, in the middle of an election campaign. Mollohan is expected to play hardball on the choice for chief counsel for the ethics panel, predicted GOP insiders, likely pushing the start of any DeLay ethics probe until late 2005.