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Ethics Members Defend Meeting

Despite criticism from an ethics watchdog group, Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics committee, denied that Mollohan’s recent one-on-one meetings with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were improper under panel rules.

On Tuesday, the group Judicial Watch, arguing that Mollohan’s contacts with Pelosi were “inappropriate,” called for Mollohan to recuse himself from any ethics committee decision on whether to proceed with an investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Hefley and Mollohan issued a joint statement on Monday night after Roll Call reported that the West Virginia Democrat had met privately with Pelosi to brief her on the status of ethics cases, including the DeLay complaint. Hefley has not held similar meetings with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), according to Hastert’s office.

“We have had an agreement under which, as the need arises, either of us may provide to a member of the leadership information on the status of or the procedures relating to a Committee matter,” said Hefley and Mollohan in their statement. “In no event does any such contact involve our disclosing information required to be kept confidential under Committee Rule 7, and in no event would either of us tolerate any attempt to ‘lobby’ us on a case pending before the Committee.”

Rule 7 of the ethics committee’s regulations spells out the confidentiality requirements for panel members and staff.

Hefley and Mollohan once again blamed the media for “erroneous” reports on the status of ethics cases, and said those stories had forced Mollohan to meet with Pelosi, either at her request or on his own initiative. Mollohan was appointed to be ranking Democrat on the ethics committee by Pelosi at the beginning of the 108th Congress.

“In addition, at times erroneous information on actions taken by or the status of matters before the Committee has appeared in the news media,” said the two lawmakers. “In such instances it has been our practice to issue a public statement and, where appropriate, to bring the correct information, as reflected in our public statement, to the attention of members of the leadership.”

However, Judicial Watch — which along with other watchdog groups has called on the ethics committee to appoint an independent counsel to review the allegations against DeLay — now believes Mollohan should recuse himself entirely from the matter.

“Mr. Mollohan’s meetings with Minority Leader Pelosi were inappropriate and warrant his recusal from any investigation of Mr. DeLay,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a statement released by the group. “Mr. Mollohan’s actions have tainted the process. At the very least, he must recuse himself from this probe.”

Hefley and Mollohan are under intense scrutiny as they prepare to make recommendations to the full ethics committee about the DeLay case. They have repeatedly defended themselves through public statements after critical stories or initiatives by ethics watchdog groups.

When Roll Call reported two weeks ago that Hefley and Mollohan used a procedural move to take the DeLay case to the full ethics committee — thus setting up the possibility of a partisan deadlock within the evenly divided panel — the two lawmakers issued a statement saying that they “have not yet made an determinations regarding disposition of the complaint.” The full committee has yet to vote on whether to dismiss or proceed with the complaint.

And when a coalition of watchdog groups last week called for an independent counsel — noting the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that DeLay had funneled to GOP members on the ethics committee — Hefley and Mollohan issued a press release “to state emphatically our belief in the integrity and ability of every member of this committee.”