Ethics Panel Finally Ready to Hire Staff

Posted July 1, 2005 at 6:33pm

After six months of partisan battling over procedural matters, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics panel, are finally ready to get down to hiring a new chief counsel/staff director, as well as more investigators.

But while both men have pledged to move quickly on the selection of a chief counsel, GOP and Democratic leadership aides cautioned that it may take longer than expected to make that choice, which has to be approved by a majority vote of the 10-member ethics committee.

Hastings and Mollohan engaged in a two-month standoff over what authority Hastings’ top aide, Ed Cassidy, could have over the daily operations of ethics committee staff. In a deal finalized late Thursday night, Hastings retreated from his earlier proposal to have Cassidy be the majority staff director for the committee, or even to give him expanded powers in directing committee operations, although he did win some concessions from his Democratic counterpart to make it easier for the chairman to monitor what is going on within any ongoing investigations.

Hastings and Mollohan agreed to allow each of them to appoint “shared staff” as their liaisons to the panel, but gave them no authority to guide committee actions.

It was the second tactical victory on the ethics front this year for Mollohan and the Democratic leadership, and Democrats crowed about their win on Friday. In March, Democrats blocked the GOP leadership’s attempt to unilaterally rewrite ethics rules to make it easier to dismiss complaints. In both cases, Republicans were forced to go back to the procedures used in the last Congress.

“I am pleased that it has finally dawned on the Republican leadership that ‘majority rule’ does not mean that this Republican Majority can completely ignore the plain meaning of the House ethics rules,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in a statement.

Yet the fight over Cassidy’s role also strengthened the Republicans’ conviction that the Democrats are trying to drag out any ethics investigations until next year in order to score political points during the mid-term elections.

One senior House Republican aide said he expects Democrats to reject any GOP-backed candidates for the chief counsel post, and for Republicans to do the same with Democratic-favored candidates. “I expect a fairly protracted fight,” the aide said. “Whoever they want, we won’t, and vice versa.”

Hastings declined to make a prediction on how long it would take to decide on a chief counsel, although he vowed to select a high-caliber candidate for the job.

“It’s unclear how long this process will take but I’m hopeful that we can move as quickly as possible to assemble a first-rate team at the committee,” Hastings said in a statement.

In an interview Friday, Mollohan said that both he and Hastings agreed that it was important to “move quickly on the staffing issue” and dismissed the allegation by some Republicans that he is trying to delay the committee’s work until 2006.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that we could be adequately staffed to move forward with all of the responsibilities the ethics committee has by the end of the August recess,” Mollohan said.

The West Virginia Democrat estimated that it would take “a month or five weeks” to hire someone for the chief counsel post. “It’s not an easy position to fill,” Mollohan said. “I can’t say we’d do that in a really short period of time.”

Once the chief counsel is in place, Mollohan said the committee could then turn to hiring “three or four” investigative counsels. The ethics panel received a funding boost this Congress to hire additional staff, and while the extra personnel will likely be devoted to educating Members and aide on the ethics rules, Mollohan said the committee could also decide to hire extra investigative counsels if circumstances warranted it.

As for his dealings with Hastings, Mollohan described their personal relationship as “excellent” and said that the staffing dispute would not lead to any lingering bitterness between them.

“You advance and advocate for your position and then there’s a resolution and then you go forward,” he said.

Behind the scenes, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) played a low-key yet vital role in making sure the final deal came together, according to GOP and Democratic insiders.

The two leaders actually ran into each other by accident on Thursday morning, and at that time, Hastert indicated a desire to intervene in the staffing dispute. That was significant to Democrats because just the day before, the Speaker had publicly declared his unwillingness to be drawn into the Hastings-Mollohan fight.

A Hastert spokesman said the Speaker wanted to see an agreement before the House adjourned for the week, but was not going to dictate the terms of deal, leaving that up to Hastings and Mollohan.

“Speaker Hastert expressed his desire to finalize for the chairman and ranking member to finalize their agreement before they left for the July Fourth recess so the ethics committee could get up and running when they return,” said Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s aide.

Early on Thursday afternoon, Mollohan sent Hastings a memo outlining the agreement. Hastings reviewed the document, met with Hastert in order to get the approval of the GOP leadership for the deal, and then returned it to Mollohan with some minor changes. The two men then put out a joint statement late Thursday night outlining their arrangement.

Hastert and Pelosi were seen conferring several times on the House floor on Thursday, and aides to both leaders confirmed that the ethics deal was part of those discussions.

Hastert and Pelosi “wanted to get this done before we left,” said one House Democratic aide. “They were riding hard on Hastings and Mollohan to wrap it up.”

A senior GOP aide said that on Thursday, “Mollohan dropped a series of demands he was making which would have imposed severe restrictions and limitations on shared staffers that had never been imposed on previous shared staffers on the committee. Once he dropped those demands, it was relatively easy to reach an agreement.”

The already-packed agenda for the ethics committee appears to be getting more so by the day. An investigation of Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) 1997 leaking of taped phone calls between GOP leaders has been held over from the 108th Congress and will now continue under the new regime.

The ethics panel is also expected to launch a preliminary investigation of whether House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) violated House rules by taking lobbyist-funded overseas trips. Such a probe might overlap with an ongoing federal investigation of the lobbying activities of longtime DeLay ally Jack Abramoff. The relationship between Abramoff and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has also come under committee scrutiny.

In the meantime, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) is the subject of a federal probe into his relationship with defense contractor Mitchell Wade, and a recent Los Angeles Times article raised questions about whether Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) did legislative favors for his brother’s lobbying clients. Both issues could end up before the panel.

More broadly, the ethics committee is also expected to face calls from lawmakers to clarify House rules regarding privately funded Member travel. In the past several months, dozens of lawmakers have reported previously undisclosed private trips or revised their existing disclosure statements following a period of heightened media scrutiny.