Ethics Moving On Smith Probe

Posted February 4, 2004 at 7:01pm

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct confirmed Wednesday evening that it had two months earlier initiated an “informal fact-finding” into allegations that Rep. Nick Smith’s (R-Mich.) November vote on a Medicare bill was linked “with support for the Congressional candidacy of his son.”

In a statement issued by Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel said that “Under Committee rules our fact finding activities are conducted on a confidential basis, and no further public comment will be made in this matter except in accordance with committee rules.”

The announcement came amid rising tensions that an ethics war may be brewing in the chamber and just hours after Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) approached Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on the floor to press him to call for an investigation.

Hoyer said Wednesday night that he found it “ironic” that Hefley “said just days ago that they were not investigating this matter,” and slammed GOP leaders for “giving the perception that they have no interest in pursuing it.”

Smith, who is retiring, initially said numerous Republicans had threatened to withhold financial support for his son’s campaign to succeed him if he voted against the Medicare Prescription Drug Act — one of President Bush’s domestic priorities — but later sought to downplay the incident.

While he has largely stopped responding to press inquiries about the matter, Smith did make reference to the idea that his vote on the Medicare bill could have an effect on his son Brad Smith’s (R) House campaign. Last week, the Michigan lawmaker issued a strongly worded release when the White House raised its estimate of how much the Medicare bill would cost.

“My ‘no’ vote on the bill is looking better all the time,” Smith said in the release. “The easy vote would have been to go along with the gang and vote for it. I’m glad for the support from my family and others to stick to my guns.”

Hoyer said he approached Hastert to personally ask him to urge the ethics panel to look into the Smith issue. The move was a follow-up to an earlier pledge by Hoyer to reach out to Hastert this week.

Hoyer said he used the face time to reiterate his concerns about the Smith matter, noting that the conversation was “friendly” but led to no real revelations about how the Speaker planned to proceed.

“He didn’t respond substantively,” Hoyer said.

One House Democratic aide said Democrats are not interested in a tit-for-tat exchange on ethics issues, but are likewise not interested in “cutting deals” that would have the effect of dismissing what they say are serious allegations of wrongdoing. The aide noted that Democrats have serious concerns about what they perceive as a pattern of unethical behavior by the majority party.

Prior to the release of the statement, Republicans continued to point out Wednesday that the ethics process is specifically designed to be immune from pressure by leaders of either party, arguing that Democrats would be up in arms if Hastert “instructed” Hefley to open an investigation of a Democrat.

GOP aides and Members also stressed the fact that the rules allowed ethics committee Democrats to put the Smith matter on the panel’s agenda if they wish to, adding fuel to their suspicions that the Democrats don’t have any substantive evidence to back up their claims and are simply trying to get media attention.

“They’re trying to raise the profile of the issue as a campaign tactic,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “It’s just not credible. They don’t have anybody to file [an ethics complaint] against.”

Republican Members and aides said that at this point there is some sentiment against retaliating if the Democrats lodge a complaint about Smith but stop there.

“I don’t think the tit-for-tat is helpful to us,” said a senior GOP lawmaker.

At the same time, many Republicans suspect that the Smith issue is only the first salvo in a coming volley of Democratic complaints. In that case, Republicans would be ready to retaliate.

“[The Leaders] are prepared if it happens to go down that road,” said a top Republican leadership aide.

The subject was discussed by the top four Republican leaders at their regular meeting in Hastert’s office Tuesday afternoon. All of them were angry about the way Democrats have handled the Smith issue, with one source describing Hastert himself as “furious.”

Republicans are not yet at the point where they would start drafting specific complaints against Democrats for potential retaliatory purposes, but they do believe they could quickly produce a number of examples of the Democratic leadership doing exactly what they accuse the GOP of doing to Smith — threatening or bribing Members for their votes.

While Democrats continue to insist their effort is not political, rank-and-file Members took to the House floor this week to launch a major message blitz to draw attention to allegations of Republican wrongdoing. Democrats are hoping — as part of a multilayered strategy — to use special orders on the floor to ratchet up the public pressure on what they see as a pattern of unethical behavior by the GOP.

Republicans engaged in similar public relations tactics during the major ethics battle that ensued between the two parties in the early 1990s.

“We’re going to continue to pound away on them,” said Andrew Souvall, spokesman for Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who is leading the effort. “We think it’s extremely important for us to discuss their abuses of power, whether it be things they do to us on the House floor or things they do off the floor.”