Watchdogs: Pelosi Wrong on Ethics

Posted March 5, 2004 at 6:17pm

Liberal and conservative watchdog groups blasted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday after the California Democrat rejected calls to allow outside groups to file complaints of alleged wrongdoing by lawmakers directly with the House ethics committee.

In her most extensive comments on the ethics process since becoming leader, Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she was “not a party to any truce” that has virtually prevented lawmakers on both sides of the aisle from filing complaints with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

She also endorsed the controversial rule that blocks outsiders from being able to trigger ethics investigations, even though she opposed that very same rule in 1997.

Pelosi attempted to place the burden for policing wayward lawmakers on the ethics committee and the press, but refused to shoulder responsibility herself for an ethics process that many critics believe is broken.

While using her press conference to tick off a list of alleged wrongdoings by Republicans, Pelosi refused to use her authority to actually initiate any formal actions.

“I will have no hesitation in taking these concerns to the public,” Pelosi said. “But I don’t have the time, nor do I think it is appropriate that the resources of the leader’s office be set aside to document ethics violations.”

She added, “I really do not think it is my job to investigate these things to a point, then file a complaint on them.”

But she pointed to a laundry list of alleged GOP corruption: “The K Street Project, Halliburton, Westar Energy, [Rep. Billy] Tauzin employment search, [Rep.] Nick Smith, the allegation of bribery on the floor of the House. We mentioned [House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay fundraising, [House Majority Whip Roy] Blunt’s connections to lobbyists, the [Rep. Curt] Weldon issue that has come up. The list goes on and on.”

Pelosi also said that all anyone with an ethics complaint needed to do was to bring it to a lawmaker who would forward it to the ethics panel.

“The outside groups have an avenue,” said Pelosi. “They can give it to a Member of Congress, a complaint, if they have a complaint that meets the criteria of a complaint for the ethics committee. I don’t know why they just don’t hand it over to a Member of Congress to file for them.”

Watchdog groups, who earlier last week initiated a push to unlock the doors of the ethics committee and restore the right of outsiders to trigger probes, expressed outrage with Pelosi.

“I thought her statements were just ridiculous,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “So much of what she said was just patently untrue.

“No one would ever file a complaint because they all know not to,” Sloan said. “And they are not going to do so without an OK from Nancy Pelosi.”

Sloan noted that her group, like several other public interest organizations, has repeatedly asked lawmakers to forward complaints, including some cases that were mentioned by Pelosi, to the ethics committee only to be rejected time after time.

Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said, “I have come to hundreds of Members of Congress with complaints. I’m zero for hundreds. I don’t do it anymore because there is no use begging and pleading and bowing and scraping.

“It is pretty clear that leadership, including Ms. Pelosi, have told rank-and-file Members, ‘Don’t file complaints,’” Ruskin added.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, called Pelosi’s comments “a complete farce. Despite her statement, she is a party to the truce.”

Fitton also criticized Pelosi for repeatedly using press conferences to allege wrongdoing by Republicans without taking the obvious step of filing complaints.

“To raise allegations and not pursue them in an honest and direct way undermines the allegations themselves,” he said. “If they truly are as significant as she is alleging she should be front and center endorsing an ethics complaint.”

Celia Wexler, vice president of Common Cause, said she regretted Pelosi’s stance on the ethics process and the need for reform.

“A process that basically shuts out the public, and makes it more difficult to bring these complaints to the attention of the ethics committee, is a dysfunctional process,” she said. “Shutting public interest groups out has not made it better, it has made it worse.”

At the time in 1997 when the House voted to bar outside groups from directly filing, Pelosi opposed the move.

“The language the gentleman from Pennsylvania is offering, if passed by this body, would be tantamount to preventing outsiders from offering amendments unless the Member of Congress went even further,” she said on the House floor at the time.

She voted against the amendment by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) that barred outside groups from filing directly with the ethics committee.

But asked last week whether she agreed with the watchdog group that called for that rule to be reversed, Pelosi endorsed the status quo.

“When we put together the package, it was to strengthen the role of the ethics committee and to emphasize the responsibility of the ethics committee so that we could have a fair hearing on what was a true ethics violation, not that we could play tit for tat as to who could make up something,” she said.