Ethics Heads Trade Jabs

Jones, Hastings Spar Over Jefferson Probe

Posted June 6, 2007 at 6:48pm

For the first time in their tenure at the helm of the House ethics committee, a public feud erupted this week between Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) in the aftermath of the 16-count indictment handed down against Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

The public rift between the chairwoman and ranking member was reminiscent of the tone in the disputes between Hastings and former ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who shared chilly relations and deadlocked on a range of committee disputes that resulted in many competing public statements and ultimately shut down the panel for months in the 109th Congress.

Jones and Hastings’ dispute bookended a heated floor debate on Tuesday night that at times touched on long-standing partisan tensions surrounding the ethics committee. The flare-up comes just as the House is poised to take up recommendations from a bipartisan ethics task force on how to improve the way the chamber polices itself.

Under pressure from Democratic leaders to respond to the Jefferson indictment, Jones put out a statement on Tuesday afternoon — originally released by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office — announcing a panel inquiry into the matter and decrying what she said were Republican efforts to politicize the process.

“It is inappropriate for any other member to impose on these proceedings,” she said, apparently referencing Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) privileged resolution directing the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to investigate the matter. The panel initially had begun an investigation in May 2006, but the committee failed to renew that inquiry when the 110th Congress began.

Jones said she had spoken to Hastings Tuesday and he agreed to an inquiry but it was not released in a joint statement — which is standard protocol when the panel agrees to an investigation.

Hastings responded in kind hours later, stating he was “sincerely disappointed” and said Jones made a unilateral decision without his consent. He also accused her of misrepresenting the committee’s earlier actions on Jefferson and said his efforts to continue the investigation went nowhere.

“I have believed, long before yesterday’s indictment, that the Committee’s May 2006 decision to empanel an investigative subcommittee was correct and it should have already been reauthorized in this Congress,” Hastings said. “I regret having to issue this statement and do not intend to comment further.”

GOP and Democratic sources cautioned Wednesday that Hastings and Jones share a previously strong working relationship and suggested the dispute would not affect the committee’s ability to function in the long term. The panel has not yet named the Members who will head up the Jefferson inquiry.

The two lawmakers were not the only ones raising the stakes on ethics, as the House floor saw some heated moments as Members debated two resolutions pertaining to Jefferson.

At several points when Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was speaking, Republican lawmakers were audibly yelling “Abscam” and “Why’d you table Murtha?” among other jeers, referring to the famous 1980s Congressional scandal and a recent floor vote to table a privileged motion by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who accused Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in late May of threatening him on the House floor.

A frustrated Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a former ethics committee member, decried the politicization of the ethics process by both parties. “Your side started this ‘culture of corruption’ last year. We’re going to start the ‘House of hypocrisy’ this year,” he said on the floor.

In a brief interview Wednesday, LaTourette expressed concern about the politicizing of ethics matters but conceded that Republicans were largely to blame for the most recent troubles. “Our first mistake was changing the rules,” he said, in reference to the GOP effort to unilaterally change ethics rules at the beginning of the 109th Congress, which Democrats furiously opposed. “That opened the door” to recent partisanship in the ethics process.

LaTourette said there has been a series of good-faith proposals to reform the process, such as letting opposing party leaders pick each other’s members to ensure confidence in the panel, but he said there is no wind behind any major overhaul of the current process. “They’ll never do it,” he said, adding that the ethics climate is “not yet” at critical mass.

Yet LaTourette, like most lawmakers interviewed for this story, opposes the creation of any outside entity to do the job of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. “I still believe in the process,” said LaTourette, who insisted that the committee functioned well when he was a member.

“Ethics is always swirling around in this institution as a raw point and a frustrating point with each side thinking the other side gets off lightly,” added Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). When asked if he still had confidence in the ethics committee, Kingston said, “To some degree. … It’s better than nothing, I don’t think we should give up on it,”

Kingston, who opposes an independent ethics entity, said the responsibility to maintain a level of decorum and civility on ethics lies with party leaders, who are tasked with making sure the institution works.

“If the Speaker and the Minority Leader don’t have some institutional discipline then their Members will jump up [to file complaints], because there are members that want to do that all the time anyhow,” he said, “They’ve got to hold this thing down because otherwise there are Members who are always ready to take partisan potshots at somebody.”

But opponents of an outside enforcement entity have little to fear, as the House ethics task force is not expected to propose any radical reforms. The effort, led by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), is expected to issue a proposal next week to open the investigation process to allow any individual — not just Members of Congress, as under current rules — to file complaints, and to establish an independent commission to screen, but not investigate, those grievances and recommend which items the ethics committee should pursue. The ethics committee is not required to take up the recommended complaints.

The task force, established earlier this year, is on schedule to complete its work next week with a formal proposal.

The screening committee would be made up of individuals selected by Democratic and Republican leaders — and could include, among others, former Members, so long as they are not registered as lobbyists.

The new organization could also receive complaints from any individual — a significant expansion of current rules that allow only Members to do so — and then forward items it deems legitimate to the ethics panel, according to several sources familiar with the proposal.

The proposal likely will include protections to prevent individuals from filing repeated frivolous complaints, such as restricting individuals to a certain number of filings or blocking those individuals who have filed items that are repeatedly declined.

Capuano declined to discuss the details of the proposal that he presented to the Democratic Caucus at its weekly meeting Wednesday, but he did say he is confident the current proposal will win approval from his House colleagues: “We have a proposal that has a consensus, and support both inside and outside the Congress.”

While the proposal could recommend an ongoing review of the ethics committee’s own internal process, Capuano said it will not offer any specific changes to that panel because that would be outside the scope of the task force’s mission.

Nonetheless, Capuano acknowledged that many Members would like to see changes to the committee itself. “The process … has caused difficulties that are unnecessary for the House,” Capuano said Wednesday, describing the current process as “too confidential.”

For example, Capuano said Members should be informed when the ethics committee is asked to refrain from an investigation at the behest of the Justice Department.

Hoyer echoed that sentiment at a Wednesday press conference but added that additional transparency in the secretive ethics process must maintain a presumption of innocence for those being investigated.

“It’s difficult to deal with this issue because by its very nature much of this should be done properly for the protection of the innocent, if you will, in camera, in secret,” he said, and later added: “There needs to be a way for us to convey to the public that we’re doing our job while at the same time protecting people against whom allegations may be made that have no basis either in fact or in law.”

But some freshman Democrats, many of whom campaigned on the issue of ethics, have called for more stringent changes to the investigation process and could reiterate those demands when the measure reaches the House floor, although they are unlikely to oppose the measure outright.

“Capuano is really trying to get a bipartisan deal,” acknowledged one Democratic freshman, who asked not to be identified. But as Democratic freshmen, the lawmaker added, his colleagues are not necessarily concerned with Republican votes. “He’s got a little different focus than we do,” the lawmaker added. “If making a strong bill means losing Republicans, then fine.”

Another Democratic lawmaker, who also asked not to be identified, said Wednesday that they had yet to see the text of the measure, although it was the primary topic at a weekly meeting of freshmen.

Those Members raised a series of concerns at the meeting, the Member added, ranging from how complaints are dealt with to the composition of the outside committee.

“When you’ve got Members of Congress on both sides that are desecrating this institution it needs to be tougher,” said Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who has proposed adding a “speedy trial” provision to the ethics panel, to allow Members to demand swift investigations of any alleged wrongdoings.

“It’s moving in the right direction,” he said of the task force proposal but he added that “those folks at this point in their careers ought to be held to a higher order” and “spanked hard” for violating the law.