Stevens Case Prompts New Ethics Push

Posted October 29, 2008 at 6:25pm

Prompted by the recent federal conviction of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), government reform advocates will renew their push for an independent office to fortify the Senate ethics process.

“I’m hoping there will be a ripple effect,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, whose organization supported recent efforts in both the House and Senate to create semi- autonomous bodies to review potential rules violations and issue recommendations to the chamber’s respective committees.

While the House approved an Office of Congressional Ethics earlier this year — the body began organizing this fall but is not expected to be active until the 111th Congress — the Senate has twice rejected similar proposals.

“We’ve got nothing on the Senate side,” Holman said this week, pointing to an impassioned floor speech Stevens himself gave in 2006 defending the Senate’s existing ethics process — shortly before the chamber defeated, 67-30, a proposed Office of Public Integrity.

“This is not a way to restore confidence in the system,” Stevens said, according to the Congressional Record. “The way to restore confidence in the system is for Senators to stop repeating rumors about the Senate, to stand up and say: The Senate has integrity, and the Senate is doing its job.”

But now, Holman and others believe the Alaskan lawmaker could prove to be the inspiration for creating a new independent office.

A federal jury on Monday convicted Stevens of seven counts of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over an eight-year period, primarily in the form of renovations to his Girdwood, Alaska, home. Stevens has vowed to appeal the conviction.

“If the conviction holds, it certainly provides a lot of weight behind the argument that the Senate Ethics Committee was not doing its job very well,” Holman said.

“A good independent ethics office will help these Members get through the rules and remind them of the consequences should they want to shirk their responsibilities,” he added.

In the meantime, whether the Senate Ethics Committee initiates its own investigation of Stevens hinges largely on the outcome of the Alaskan’s re-election bid next week.

It is highly unlikely the panel would begin a probe in the final weeks of the 110th Congress if Stevens is defeated Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs for Common Cause, noted: “Even if Stevens doesn’t go back, it still does provide a springboard for the Senate to look at itself.”

But Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer questioned whether the conviction alone would be incentive enough to a Senate that resoundingly defeated previous proposals for an independent office.

Instead, Wertheimer pointed to the recently inaugurated House Office of Congressional Ethics, asserting that the body’s performance could inspire the Senate to act.

“One of the things we’ll be focusing on next year is working to ensure the new House Office of Congressional Ethics works effectively and carries out its responsibilities,” Wertheimer said. “Assuming that happens, it will create a very powerful case for having the same kind of office in the Senate and will be much harder to resist by Senators who pretty much stonewalled an Office of Congressional Ethics or Public Integrity in this Congress.”

The independent House office is chaired by former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.).

The office is charged with reviewing and recommending complaints to the full House ethics panel, which retains responsibility for investigating potential rules violations.