2009: A Busy Year in Congressional Ethics Comes to a Close

Posted December 14, 2009 at 3:27pm

In January 2007, when this column first appeared in Roll Call, the subject of Congressional ethics had never been hotter. It was one of the main issues Democrats had used to sweep into power, gaining 31 seats in the House and six in the Senate. Exit polls in those elections suggested that “corruption— was more important to voters than terrorism, the economy or even Iraq.

[IMGCAP(1)]What followed was a flurry of legislative activity surrounding ethics, the most significant of which was the September 2007 passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Amid all the focus on ethics, Roll Call introduced this column to answer both real and hypothetical “questions of ethics.—

Yet despite all of the attention on ethics in 2007, skeptics wondered whether it would last. And they had good reason to ask. Many times in the past, it had seemed, when corruption scandals had thrust government ethics into the limelight, the attention soon faded without much impact.

Three years later, a look back at 2009’s leading ethics stories reveals that the issue is still going strong. In fact, whereas 2007 was the Year of Congressional Ethics, ethics may have made even greater news in 2009.

The year started fast. Immediately upon taking office, President Barack Obama put lobbyists on notice that they would be a prominent target of his administration’s ethics policy. On his first day in office, Obama signed an order restricting the lobbying by personnel who leave his administration as well as the work of former lobbyists seeking to enter his administration. The order also included a tougher ban on gifts to executive branch employees. Over the remainder of the year, more restrictions on lobbying would come, including strict guidelines on communications with executive branch employees regarding the Troubled Asset Relief Program and stimulus funding. Many restrictions applied only to registered lobbyists. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2009 saw the biggest spike ever in lobbyist deregistrations.

January also saw the first-ever meeting of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was created to review allegations of misconduct against House Members and staffers to determine whether the allegations merit referral matters to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The OCE’s first year of existence was not without controversy, including public disagreements with the House ethics committee regarding OCE’s role and procedures. How those disagreements ultimately play out remains to be seen.

The new year also brought a new twist to the biggest ethics story of 2008: the trial and indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Just days after Stevens’ career in the Senate officially came to an end, allegations surfaced that the prosecution team that obtained a guilty verdict against him may have intentionally withheld key evidence during the trial. This would eventually lead to the government’s decision to dismiss all charges. In an April court filing requesting that the guilty verdict be thrown out, the government acknowledged that the prosecution had withheld key cross-examination materials and had made arguments to the court that were factually inaccurate. Some members of the prosecution team now face investigations into their own conduct.

Meanwhile, both chambers’ ethics committees were busy with investigations in 2009. In the Senate, the Ethics Committee investigated Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) for their participation in a bank’s VIP loan program. It also investigated Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) for statements he made regarding the circumstances of his appointment to the Senate by former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who himself was indicted for exercising power for his own “financial and political benefit.— Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) also was the subject of an investigation relating to his handling of an affair with the wife of a former staffer. Other investigations are likely ongoing, but details have not been made public.

In the House, a leaked internal memorandum from the House ethics committee showed that, as of July, there were open investigations relating to as many as 30 current Members. One investigation making headlines concerned allegations that Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and other Members had accepted bribes from the PMA Group, a lobbying firm that dissolved after an FBI raid on its office.

Yet despite all the ethics committee investigations, 2009 did not bring any formal discipline. The Senate committee dismissed the complaints against Dodd and Conrad, stating that they did not violate ethics rules but should have exercised “more vigilance— to avoid an appearance of “preferential treatment.— The committee issued a public letter of qualified admonition to Burris that, while harshly worded, did not amount to formal discipline. On the House side, the ethics committee announced the outcome of several investigations, none of which resulted in discipline of a Member.

One former Member did face discipline of another kind, however. In August, former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was convicted of bribery, racketeering and money laundering in connection with an investigation that famously involved the discovery of $90,000 in cash in a freezer in Jefferson’s home. One prosecutor called Jefferson’s actions the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress, and Jefferson received the longest prison sentence ever for a Member, 13 years. Judge T.S. Ellis, who handed down the sentence, told Jefferson: “Public corruption is a cancer. It needs to be surgically removed.—

Removing that cancer altogether won’t happen overnight, if ever. Indeed, a look back at 2009 suggests that the storm of ethics activity that began in 2007 was more than a passing shower. While the subject of government ethics might not enjoy its current prominence forever, the issue does not appear to be going away anytime soon. See you in 2010.

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods LLP. Click here to submit questions. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Questions