Editorial: Ethics Squabble

Posted November 3, 2009 at 3:43pm

The good news, arising from a leak last week, is that both the House ethics committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics are doing their jobs investigating possible wrongdoing.

The bad news is that the ethics committee is going out of its way to criticize the OCE instead of treating it as a partner in policing the House.

The accidental disclosure of a 22-page weekly activity report of the ethics committee, which was obtained by the Washington Post, showed that, at least in July, the committee was investigating the conduct of 19 lawmakers and a few staff members, and that the OCE was reviewing 14 Members. Some were being probed by both bodies.

This is a welcome development after years of inactivity and deadlock by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The OCE was created to independently review ethics charges and refer cases to the committee for action.

Last week, a group of six ethics watchdog groups declared that the OCE “by its very existence and by its actions, deserves much credit for this sharp increase in activity at the ethics committee as compared to previous years.—

We’re not sure that is the case. We’d like to hope that the new leaders of the committee, Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), are determined to improve its tarnished image — and perhaps even, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed, “drain the swamp— of corruption.

What we do know is that the OCE’s existence and procedures have forced much more disclosure of ethics activity. A complicated set of rules requires the ethics committee to make periodic disclosures of how it handles referrals from the OCE.

Although the committee is active in investigating, we have to say — as we have before — that we’ve yet to see actual results from committee probes of some powerful Members, such as House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and at least seven members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

In a comparatively minor case, meanwhile, the committee just issued a 541-page report dismissing a case against Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) — more than two dozen pages of which consisted of a scathing critique of the OCE for referring the case.

Graves, ranking member of the Small Business Committee, failed — for the second time — to disclose a family financial connection to a witness he invited to testify.

The ethics committee found nothing against that in House rules — then went on to blast OCE for “several procedural and substantive deficiencies,— which it enumerated while absolving the OCE, of course, of “any intent, motive or bad faith.—

The six watchdog groups declared, “We strongly believe that the ethics committee should maintain its focus on the many important ethics matters currently before it rather than engaging in an extensive and time-consuming effort to undermine the basic functions and jurisdiction of the OCE.— We agree.