Edit Memo: House must vote on proposed independent ethics panel

House must vote on proposed independent ethics panel

House Democratic leaders on Wednesday evening abruptly cancelled a vote scheduled for Thursday on a long-awaited proposal to create an independent ethics panel to review and monitor House member’s conduct and compliance with House rules.

The vote was cancelled after Democrats and Republicans on the Rules Committee attacked the plan as unnecessary.

“What makes people think that six people chosen at random would have more ethics, more intelligence, more judgment than we have?” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) asked at the Rules Committee hearing, referring to the proposed bipartisan six-member panel of outsiders who would be appointed to investigate complaints and forward them to the existing House Ethics Committee.

To answer Rep. Slaughter’s question, we can look at the last five years, which have seen some of the worst congressional scandal in recent history — two Members jailed on bribery charges and two under indictment for corruption, plus former lobbyist Jack Abramoff — while the House Ethics Committee has remained silent and inactive.

“We don’t need any more evidence that peer review simply does not work in a political environment like Congress where Members must trade good will and favors to accomplish their legislative goals,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause. “The proposed Office of Congressional Ethics would be a vast improvement over the status quo. House leaders must keep moving to bring this to a vote on the floor to restore accountability and transparency around ethics in this chamber.”

The proposal

After congressional corruption scandals helped sweep Republicans out of power in the House in 2006, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tapped Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) to lead a bipartisan task force to examine the creation of an independent ethics panel.

Rep. Capuano proposed a six-member panel of non-lawmakers jointly appointed by the Speaker and Minority Leader to investigate complaints filed against Members or their staff. The panel would have a staff of its own, protected from firings by Members of Congress. It could initiate investigations on its own, but would not accept complaints from outside groups.

After an investigation, and on a date certain, the panel would be required to issue a report to the Ethics Committee of its findings and its recommendation that a complaint either be dismissed or further investigated by the committee. In both cases, the committee determination would be made public. If the panel’s vote were to result in a tie, the complaint would be forwarded to the ethics committee with a recommendation to further investigate.

The House has never before had procedural mechanisms and strict timelines to prevent the ethics committee from ignoring a complaint. Under this proposal, complaints would no longer languish uninvestigated for months or even years.

Some have criticized the draft proposal because it does not have subpoena power. But in Common Cause’s view, that is not critically important. It is already against the law to lie to Congress or an entity under its jurisdiction, and that would include the independent panel. In the event that the independent panel wanted testimony or documentation that it could not get, it would name in its report recommending further investigation by the ethics committee the witness or document that it wanted but could not get.

While a certain level of discretion is necessary during an ethics investigation to protect Members from frivolous complaints, the current system is completely shrouded in secrecy. By dismissing a complaint outright or making its findings public, the independent panel ensures a public airing of possible violations by members or their staff. As long as members and their staff do not violate the rules, they have nothing to fear.

The current system is also hopelessly conflicted. Members for Congress are asked to investigate other members of Congress, including party leadership. As others have noted, the first question a judge asks potential jurors is if they know the accused because it could cloud their judgment. An independent ethics panel would incorporate this basic tenet of jurisprudence into Congress’ internal proceedings.

The proposal to create an independent body to investigate and recommend actions for possible ethics violations is based on models that exist in many state legislatures. State legislatures have successfully used independent ethics enforcement for years. In fact, many states created independent bodies in response to corruption scandals like the Abramoff affair.

The status quo

After the investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Republicans and Democrats agreed to change the rules in the House so that only members of Congress could file ethics complaints against another member. At the same time, both parties agreed to an informal truce where no complaints were filed – mostly out of fear of retaliation. To this day, the only complaint filed in recent history was by former Rep. Chris Bell (D-TX) against former Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) after Delay engineered the controversial redistricting in Texas. At the time, Bell was chastised by members of his own party for filing the complaint.

In the years since former lobbyist Jack Abramoff burst into public view with his influence-buying, we have seen a number of congressional corruption cases that have been handled exclusively by the Justice Department, while the House Ethics Committee remained silent. For example, former Reps. Randy “Duke Cunnigham (R-CA) and Bob Ney (R-OH) went to jail for bribery. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) is under indictment for corruption after federal agents found $90,000 in cash in his freezer. And this month, Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) was indicted also for corruption around a land deal.

In each of these cases – and others – there was no indication of activity in the Ethics Committee until after an indictment or guilty plea, and in some cases there was no activity at all. The House Ethics Committee did not open any proceedings involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff until more than a year after media reports indicated that more than a dozen members of Congress and their staff were under criminal investigation stemming from their relationship with Abramoff.

The lack of enforcement has always been the problem. In all of the cases in the news about corruption in Congress, all of the activities in question were already against the rules, even before the passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. The scandal was that Congress had done nothing to stop it. Even now, after all of the sound and fury of the 2005 elections, Rep. Renzi has been indicted for possible criminal activity related to his work as a Member of Congress, and the Ethics Committee has done nothing. The newly tightened ethics rules are nothing without enforcement.

Speaker Pelosi must now make good on her promise to run a more ethical House than her Republican predecessor and bring this to a vote on the House floor and get it passed.

Recent examples of Members of Congress or their staff who have been involved in criminal investigations as of a result of their work in Congress:

1. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) pleaded guilty November 28th, 2005 to two counts: Conspiracy to Commit Crimes against the United States (including Fraud and Bribery) and Tax Evasion.

2. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) was indicted September 28th, 2005 on a Criminal Conspiracy charge.

3. Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) is currently under investigation for his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. On April 13, 2007 the FBI raided the Rep. Doolittle’s Virginia home.

4. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) is currently under investigation for his relationship with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and has been interviewed by the FBI. In August 2003, Feeney accompanied Abramoff on a golf trip to Scotland; despite the $20,000 trip cost, Feeney filed a $5,000 travel report estimate with Congress.

5. On February 26, 2007, Will Heaton pleaded guilty to corruption charges regarding his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Heaton was Chief of Staff for Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) and received gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including tickets to sporting events, meals and a golfing junket to Scotland. In exchange, Heaton helped Ney to arrange legislative advantages for Abramoff and his clients.

6. On June 4, 2007, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) was indicted on sixteen counts, including five counts of honest services wire fraud, four counts of solicitation of bribes, one count of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, money laundering, racketeering and obstruction of justice.

7. Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) admitted to accepting bribes from Jack Abramoff and others, pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of making a false statement. On January 19, 2007, Ney was sentenced to 30 months and fined $6,000.

8. Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), pleaded guilty January 10th, 2006 to two counts: Conspiracy to Commit Bribery of a Public Official and Aiding and Abetting the Bribery of a Public Official. Rep. Jefferson is the public official.

9. On April 19, 2007, the FBI raided the family business offices of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ). The FBI is currently pursuing two investigations against Renzi: for land-swap legislation from 2005 that inappropriately advantaged a former business partner; and for signing legislation in November 2003 that benefited a military contractor who employs Renzi’s father

10. A former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), Tony Rudy pleaded guilty March 31st, 2006 to one count of Conspiracy. He was a colleague of Jack Abramoff’s and then a lobbyist at Alexander Strategy Group.

11. On May 8th, 2006, Neil Volz, a prior aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy. In the plea, Volz admits to conspiring with Abramoff and others to commit fraud – by giving and taking bribes – and to violate a federal ban on lobbying within one year of his congressional employment.

12. On April 24, 2007, Mark Zachares, a former aide to Rep. Don Young (R-AK), pleaded guilty to one count of Conspiracy to Defraud the United States for his relationship with Jack Abramoff.