GOP Seeks High Ground, but Truce Likely to Hold

Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:35pm

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged Republican lawmakers this week to reclaim the high ground on Congressional ethics, but his call appears unlikely to reignite a long-dormant ethics war even as allegations of misconduct touched several Democratic lawmakers in recent days.

Asked whether Boehner would pursue ethics complaints against Democrats cited in recent news reports, spokesman Michael Steel said only: “The ethics committee has the power to conduct these investigations and they should do so.”

That reticence to file a formal complaint is not unusual in the House, with leaders of both parties demanding investigations in the 110th Congress but declining to actually trigger an inquiry.

Following an ethics war in the mid-1990s — decried in 1999 by then-incoming Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as a series of “frivolous” filings — an unofficial truce over Member-initiated complaints went into effect. It has held strong with the exception of brief period in 2004, when then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) charged then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) with numerous violations of House rules.

While the new Office of Congressional Ethics, established earlier this year to review and recommend investigations to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, could elect to investigate any allegations against Members raised in the media or elsewhere, the body is still in its organizational stage and has yet to establish its procedures.

In a memorandum issued Saturday celebrating the upset victory of Republican Anh Cao over embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) — who is currently fighting a 16-count federal indictment on corruption charges — Boehner vowed to rebuild the diminished GOP minority by “work[ing] aggressively to earn the trust of the American people.”

“In the two years ahead, House Republicans will demonstrate our commitment to reform by holding ourselves to the highest possible ethical standard,” Boehner wrote.

Republicans indicated Tuesday that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who faces legal scrutiny for his relationship to an oil services company and a transportation project in Florida, will likely lose his ranking seat on the Natural Resources Committee in the 111th Congress.

In the meantime, two senior Democrats addressed questions this week raised by hometown news reports.

The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has earned more than $420,000 from a half-dozen real estate deals with campaign contributors since 2002.

Gutierrez, who told the newspaper that he earned a profit on five of the six agreements, said his investments were aboveboard.

“While the Chicago Tribune can focus on exaggerated and misleading stories, Congressman Gutierrez will continue to work hard for his constituents,” said a statement issued by Gutierrez’s office. “From defending the workers at Republic Windows and Doors to pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, Congressman Gutierrez will not let sensational reporting distract him from his priorities.”

In addition, a Gutierrez spokeswoman defended the lawmaker’s decision to lease district office space from Chicago developer Krzysztof Karbowski, from whom Gutierrez purchased and sold personal real estate, earning a profit of $186,000 on one home.

Spokeswoman Rebecca Dreilinger added that the ethics committee approved the office lease at the lawmaker’s request. She noted the $4,000-per-month lease is average for the area.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) also addressed allegations reported Tuesday by the Village Voice based on a federal corruption probe conducted in the early 1980s.

According to the report, Towns allegedly accepted $1,300 in cash from an undercover agent during his first bid for the House, but subsequently returned the funds and was never charged with wrongdoing.

“There was a thorough investigation of these false allegations twenty-six years ago, and I was cleared of any wrongdoing,” Towns said in a statement. “Nothing has changed since then. I promptly rejected and returned campaign contributions that were improperly offered, and that is all there is to it. I do not understand why the Village Voice is republishing a discredited story that is a quarter-century old.”

Republicans have focused their criticism on Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the subject of an ethics committee investigation into his personal finances following a string of media reports raising questions about his use of rent-controlled apartments, tax payments and fundraising for a City College of New York center bearing his name.

The committee also announced Tuesday that it will expand its investigation into Rangel to include allegations of a quid pro quo for donations to City College. The senior Democrat, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, requested the expanded inquiry.

As first reported by the New York Times, Rangel is alleged to have reversed a previous policy stand to help an oil company retain a multimillion-dollar tax loophole while a Nabors Industries chief executive pledged $1 million to the City College center.

Democrats retook control of the House in the 110th Congress in part by campaigning on a platform that criticized Republicans for a “culture of corruption.”

Asked whether Democrats have lost their claim on the ethics mantle, a senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, responded dismissively, noting that retiring Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) is also under indictment on corruption charges and that retiring Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) is currently appealing charges of driving while intoxicated.

Fossella’s May arrest in Alexandria led to revelations that he fathered a child in an extramarital affair.

“With so many Republican Members of Congress and their staff spending time in jail and under federal investigation, I leave that question up to your readers,” the aide said.