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Committee Rules Clear Way for Mollohan to Initiate Investigation

Under House ethics committee rules, the top Democrat on the panel has the authority to place any matter on the committee’s agenda, including a motion to launch an investigation.

The unusual provision granting the ranking member the power to help set the committee’s agenda was a key feature recommended by the 1997 ethics reform task force when it overhauled the procedures for handling complaints.

It is unclear whether Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the ranking member hand-picked by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has exercised this power since assuming his party’s top seat on the committee. Unique among House panels, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is shrouded in secrecy, to the point where all votes, agendas and even the meeting times are withheld from the public.

Prior to 1997, the chairman set the agenda. The ability for the ranking member to include matters for the committee’s attention was at best informal, and during the partisan turmoil of 1995-96, the relationship between the top members completely broke down.

While curtailing the ability of outside groups to file complaints, the task force recognized that the committee’s ability to independently launch investigations would require the cooperation of both parties.

“One of the principal goals of the Task Force was to identify ways to enhance the bipartisan nature of the committee,” according to the task force’s report. “One way to promote this goal is by ensuring that the majority and minority are provided with equal opportunity to place matters on the Committee’s agenda.”

If the ranking member does place an item on the agenda, then it would be up to the full, 10-member committee to vote on how to proceed. Given the even split between Republicans and Democrats, the panel could very well deadlock.

Besides having a bipartisan agreement to self-initiate an investigation, the other major avenue would be for a Member to file an official complaint, an action that formally triggers a set of deadlines for committee action.

But the complaint must follow a specific form, under the committee’s rules. A complaint is defined as “a written allegation of improper conduct against a Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives filed with the Committee with the intent to initiate an inquiry.”

It is unclear who would be named in a complaint dealing with the bribery allegations raised by Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), because he has not publicly identified any lawmakers or staff who attempted to pressure his vote on the Medicare bill.

If a lawmaker files a complaint, Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Mollohan have 14 days or five legislative days, whichever comes first, to decide if the allegations constitute a complaint.

If it is a properly filed complaint, a new clock begins to tick. The accused Member or employee has 30 days to provide a response. The chairman and ranking member have 45 days or five legislative days, whichever is later, to recommend a course of action to the full committee. The rules outline a number of options, including outright dismissal or the establishment of a formal probe by a four-member subcommittee. Or the committee leaders could request an additional 45 days to gather additional information about the allegations.

If there is no recommendation on how to handle a complaint after the first 45 days, and no extension is granted, then the rules call for the automatic creation of an investigatory subcommittee. This was another key provision of the ethics reform task force, designed to force action by the committee one way or the other.

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