House Ethics Committee has much to prove

The House Ethics Committee appears to have broken its deadlock and says it is moving forward by launching investigations into two House Members already under federal investigation, and a third probe into whether any other Members or staff may have been involved in wrongdoing by former House Member Duke Cunningham, who was sentenced to jail for bribery.

However, given the Ethics Committee’s lack of action over the last 16 months, and refusal to launch any investigation around lobbyist Jack Abramoff or former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), Common Cause is skeptical of the committee’s desire to conduct the full scope of investigations needed.

“We will be watching closely and hope to see these and additional thorough, credible and timely investigations,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “However, it is not reassuring that the committee has chosen to confine its investigation of the Abramoff matter – at least initially – to only one member, Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH). I think we all know the scandal is much bigger than that.”

It is also troubling that for some time, Ethics Committee leaders in both the House and Senate have said they would not start investigations into Ney, DeLay, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and others because the Justice Department was already conducting investigations of its own into those Members, and they did not want to interfere by running parallel probes.

“It seems clear now that the Ethics Committees could have begun investigations into Jack Abramoff’s dealings on Capitol Hill a long time ago, but instead, it chose to make excuses,” said Pingree. “I hope this is going to be a good faith effort by the Ethics Committee and not merely an attempt to find some political cover for more than a year of inaction.”

If the House Ethics Committee will conduct investigations of Members already under federal scrutiny, then the panel should also immediately add to its to-do list other Members known to be under federal scrutiny, such as Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA), Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) and Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA).

It is also unfortunate that the panel will not be conducting an investigation of DeLay, arguably one of the most ethically unfit Members to serve in the House.

“The message this sends to the public is that DeLay can seemingly repeatedly break the rules and simply run out the clock and walk away with no serious punishment from Congress,” Pingree said.