No Traffic Tickets Land at Ethics

Posted May 19, 2008 at 6:38pm

Despite fears that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct would be inundated with minor indiscretions — namely, traffic violations — after the House approved a resolution requiring the panel to take action whenever a Member is formally charged with criminal conduct, the committee does not appear to have dealt with a single ticket in nearly 12 months.

The sole exception is expected to be Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), who was arrested in Alexandria, Va., on May 1 and charged with driving while intoxicated.

Under H.Res. 451, incorporated in the chamber’s Ethics Manual, whenever a Member is “indicted or otherwise informally charged with criminal conduct” a 30-day clock starts in which the ethics panel is required to either empanel an investigative subcommittee or issue a report detailing its decision not to do so.

Although the resolution was prompted by the indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) — and intended to address similar scenarios in which a Member is formally accused of a significant crime — Republican lawmakers raised concerns during debate on the measure that its broad language would entrap lesser violations.

“What it would mean, Mr. Speaker, is under this resolution, a Member who gets a traffic ticket, gets a ticket for littering, is arrested for protesting at the Sudanese Embassy, that that would have to be referred to the Committee on Standards,” Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), who led Republican debate on the resolution, asserted on the House floor last June.

But since the measure’s enactment last June, the ethics committee — which does not publicly discuss its actions — appears to have invoked the rule in only three instances.

In addition to Jefferson, the committee empaneled subcommittees to investigate Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), indicted in February on 35 counts of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy relating to his efforts to get the federal government to buy land from his business partner, and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who was charged with assaulting a United Airlines employee in August and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of trespassing and paid a small fine.

The ethics panel has until the 30-day window expires next week to address Fossella’s recent DUI violation. In addition, one Congressional watchdog group called Monday for the panel to investigate the New York lawmaker’s participation in several overseas Congressional delegations, citing recent media reports that the now-retired Air Force officer with whom he has confessed to having a long-term affair and a child accompanied him on those trips.

While statistics suggest at least one of the 440 House Members — including four Delegates and Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner — would have received a traffic violation in the past year, legal experts and House aides pointed to other factors that may have allowed the ethics panel to avoid a flood of traffic tickets.

Among those reasons is that the resolution does not actually mandate Members to report their indiscretions.

“There is nothing in there that says the Member is compelled to do anything,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the House floor last June.

Unless it opted to comb traffic courts nationwide — an unlikely scenario — one legal expert noted the ethics panel remains oblivious to Members’ more minor infractions.

In addition, attorney Sudeep Bose, who specializes in Virginia traffic law, suggested that many infractions may not rise to the level of criminal charges.

“Not all moving violations have the probability or possibility of jail time,” Bose said, citing violations of the speed limit, for example, that fail to trigger “reckless driving” charges because the driver is only a few miles per hour over the limit.

But Bose noted that the more serious charges of reckless driving or DUI infractions are more common in Virginia.

“Reckless driving is the most popular criminal charge in Virginia as it relates to moving violations,” he said.

According to a report issued in April by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, at least 13 percent of the more than 2,100 drivers surveyed nationwide received one or more tickets in the previous 24-month period. The 2008 Traffic Safety Culture Index interviewed drivers between October 2007 and January 2008.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) appeared in mid-May to place himself in that group, stating that he had recently received a traffic ticket.

“Sometimes a mistake can lead to a violation of something,” LaTourette said at a hearing unrelated to traffic issues. “And just to give you an example, the other day I was driving in Ohio and I thought that the speed limit was 25, excuse me 35, and it actually turned out to be 25. I was mistaken in that regard, and the police officer who pulled me over wasn’t impressed by my mistake of fact.”

But a LaTourette aide said Monday the lawmaker’s anecdote was “in reference to a ticket he got 25 years ago.”