Democratic Freshmen Told PMA Resolution Could Incite Ethics Witch Hunt

Posted April 29, 2009 at 6:21pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday brought her quiet push to contain the fallout from the unfolding PMA Group scandal to a critical front: her own freshmen.Pelosi tapped Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), formerly the top Democrat on the House ethics committee, to brief the new House Democrats on the ethics process and the flaws in attempts by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to force an internal probe on the matter through privileged resolutions.In his presentation — lasting no longer than 10 minutes, according to individuals in the room — Berman cautioned that an open-ended look into the nexus between campaign contributions and earmarks could become a witch hunt. And he argued that if Flake was serious about forcing an inquiry, he could simply file an ethics complaint.“He wanted to relay the dangers that Flake’s resolution could pose to the entire Congress,— one source said.The PMA Group, which won tens of millions of dollars in earmarks for its clients while generating millions of dollars in campaign contributions for favored lawmakers, imploded earlier this year after the revelation that its offices were raided by the FBI in November. The federal scrutiny appears to be part of a wider probe of Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) earmark network — creating a headache for Pelosi, Murtha’s close confidante, and an opportunity for Flake, an anti-earmark crusader. In a bid to allay concerns about setting off a flurry of ethics investigations, Flake narrowed the scope of his resolution to focus only on earmark requests for PMA clients. He has argued that filing an ethics complaint would force him to name names, something he would rather leave to the ethics committee.If most Democrats are worried Flake’s resolution is the wrong approach, for the time being, many of the Caucus’ freshmen appear more concerned with the dangers posed by the unchecked scandal.“My whole race in Illinois was about ethics,— freshman Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D) said, pointing to the clean-government platform espoused by many in her 32-member class. “Anytime anything that comes up about ethics, the more sunshine, the better.—She was among six freshman Democrats joining 11 others crossing party lines to support Flake’s first attempt to force an ethics inquiry. By Flake’s seventh and latest attempt, nine freshmen joined 18 other Democrats in peeling off.“I’m concerned about the unwillingness to move hard to make this place as clean as possible,— said freshman Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who has also supported Flake’s resolutions from the outset. He attended the Wednesday breakfast and said Berman made a “good argument, but I don’t see anyone else saying, Let’s very aggressively get at this problem.’—Himes called Flake’s resolutions “flawed in 10 different ways, but the underlying idea is the right one. And until there’s a better proposal to move the ball forward here, I’ll support the sub-optimal proposal.—Berman’s Wednesday briefing, delivered at the Speaker’s weekly huddle with freshmen, largely reprised one he offered at the end of a Democratic Caucus meeting before the spring recess. And he is expected to give a similar seminar to a larger gathering of House Democrats soon. But pressure is mounting on House Democratic leadership to go further. Flake was cryptic about his plans on Wednesday but made clear would keep applying the heat. “There will be more,— he said. Democracy 21 and other good-government groups are expected this week to call for an ethics inquiry into PMA and its ties to senior appropriators.