Members Asked to Aid Ethics

Posted March 10, 2004 at 6:36pm

Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics committee, have asked their respective party leaders to create a pool of Members who could be quickly tapped to take part in ethics investigations.

According to Hefley, the request by the two lawmakers does not mean that the ethics panel has decided to formally initiate full-scale probes into any of the cases it currently has under review, including allegations that some House GOP lawmakers improperly sought to influence Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) during a controversial Nov. 22 vote on Medicare prescription drug legislation.

But it does signal that Hefley and Mollohan believe the need for a full-blown investigation could come soon, according to Congressional insiders, and the two want to be able to move rapidly if the ethics panel votes to create a four-member investigative subcommittee to handle any probes.

Both Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are complying with the request from the ethics panel.

“We are working on putting together our list of Members,” said Jennifer Crider, a Pelosi spokeswoman. Crider added that Pelosi and Hastert would each select five Members for the new pool.

John Feehery, Hastert’s spokesman, said, “I’m assuming it’s normal operating procedure,” and noted Hastert was still reviewing potential selections for the ethics pool.

Under ethics committee rules, the full 10-member committee must approve by majority vote the creation of an investigative subcommittee, which would be made up of four Members, two from each party. Two lawmakers currently sitting on the ethics panel would be appointed as chairman and ranking member of the investigative subcommittee, while a Republican and Democrat from the pool would be added as the third and fourth members.

The investigative subcommittee, which meets in executive session, would have the power to subpoena witnesses and take testimony under oath, and can recommend to the full ethics committee a “Statement of Alleged Violation” if it finds “substantial reason to believe” the rules of the House were broken. If no violations are found, a confidential report on the case is sent to the full committee.

While the ethics committee has not voted so far to create an investigative subcommittee in the Smith case, Members and senior aides on both sides feel it may do so soon. Democrats, especially House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have been pressing the ethics committee to begin a full investigation of the Smith allegations on its own. Hoyer and other Democrats have threatened to file formal ethics charges initiating a probe if the committee doesn’t do so, a move that could break a seven-year truce between the parties.

Hefley and Mollohan announced in early February that the committee had actually begun an “informal fact-finding” into the Smith case on Dec. 8.

The day after the Medicare vote, which was held open for three hours by Hastert as GOP leaders and Bush administration officials desperately scrambled to round up enough votes to pass a $400 billion Medicare prescription drug plan, Smith publicly charged that he had been offered “bribes and special deals” to support the legislation. Smith, whose son Brad Smith is seeking to replace him after he retires at the end of this Congress, said some unnamed Republicans claimed they would steer $100,000 in campaign contributions from business interests to Brad Smith’s campaign in return for his father’s vote on the Medicare bill. In the end, Smith voted against the Medicare package, although it passed the House.

Smith now says he was offered “substantial financial support” for his son if he voted for the Medicare bill but said no actual number was used. In Smith’s view, the financial support offered for his son does not constitute a bribe under federal law.

FBI agents recently interviewed Smith, several GOP and Democratic sources say, although Smith won’t discuss that session.