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Unfinished Business Awaits Ethics Panel

Fresh off a campaign season in which he was credited with helping to cement the GOP majority in the House, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and other top Republicans in the chamber will return to Washington for a lame-duck session with a number of lingering ethics issues still dogging them.

Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House ethics panel, are expected to issue new guidance soon on fundraising and “log rolling,” the term used to describe party leaders’ efforts to win support from undecided rank-and-file lawmakers during controversial votes by offering concessions on legislation or assistance with their campaigns. Both issues were at the heart of recent ethics committee decisions to formally admonish DeLay, rulings that left the Texas Republican and other GOP leaders, and even some Democrats, bewildered as to what the committee believes is allowable behavior on those two fronts.

Hefley, who has served on the ethics committee since September 1997, could be reappointed by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as chairman for another term, although GOP insiders see that as extremely unlikely at this point. Hefley and the ethics committee angered many House Republicans with the back-to-back rebukes of DeLay just weeks before the election, and the feeling within Republican leadership circles is that Hastert will go with another choice in the next Congress.

“It’s fair to say that [Hefley] won’t return as chairman of ethics,” said a top House GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Several senior House Republicans have mentioned Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.), who chaired the investigative subcommittee that oversaw the probe of Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), as a potential replacement for Hefley, but Hulshof has little interest in the position, according to GOP leadership staffers.

DeLay and other Republicans are also still upset with the “politicization” of the ethics process by House Democrats and outside watchdog groups. While unsure if they will seek any changes to ethics committee rules in the 109th Congress and hesitant to retaliate against Democrats with their own ethics filings, GOP leaders may explore whether to make it more difficult for Members to file such complaints by raising the bar on what is an acceptable filing. Revising that standard could make it harder to trigger an ethics probe and easier for the Member against whom the complaint is filed to get it dismissed.

This potential rules change is the result of the ethics complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) against DeLay. Bell’s complaint led to a formal rebuke of DeLay by the ethics committee.

Many Republicans are furious about allegations Bell made against the Majority Leader in his ethics filing, which included charges of illegally soliciting corporate contributions, setting up a Texas PAC to launder corporate contributions and misusing his office to intervene in a Texas redistricting fight. These GOP lawmakers would like to see Bell and his staff hauled before the ethics committee for questioning since even the ethics panel itself acknowledged in its report on the DeLay case that Bell’s charges were not supported by the evidence he produced, despite its eventual decision to admonish DeLay.

Some senior Republicans also are considering a rules changes to limit access to the House floor by former Members while they are lobbying. That idea grew out of the Smith investigation, which began after the Michigan Republican alleged that party leaders in November 2003 were offering “bribes” and “special deals” to wavering GOP lawmakers in return for their support on a controversial Medicare prescription drug bill. Because of all the scrutiny given by the ethics committee to what occurred on the floor during the Medicare vote, one idea now being floated among leadership aides is to bar former Members from appearing on the floor while a client they are representing has legislation before the House.

Hefley and Mollohan also have several other committee matters to resolve during this session, including unfinished ethics cases involving Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.).

Hefley and Mollohan are expected to release guidance soon outlining their authority to admonish DeLay or other lawmakers, and will cite a number of ethics cases going back to the late 1980s to buttress its position, according to sources familiar with the committee’s intentions.

The pair acknowledged in their report on the DeLay case that the approach they were using was new, although they cited several previous instances in which a Member was rebuked for behavior without a formal investigation or sanctions being initiated by the ethics committee.

DeLay was issued letters of admonition in the Smith case, as well as in response to Bell’s complaint. The committee did not appoint an investigative subcommittee in response to Bell’s complaint, although such a panel was used to review Smith’s initial charges, which he later recanted. Smith was admonished by the ethics committee for his statements.

“Resolution of a complaint by means of a letter to the respondent is appropriate where, according to the information before the Committee, the respondent’s conduct either violates or raises concerns under House Rules or standards of conduct, but the circumstances — including the completeness of the information before the Committee, and the nature of the violation — indicate that a formal investigation is not warranted,” Hefley and Mollohan wrote in their decision on the Bell complaint. “In the past such letters have not been formally termed ‘letters of admonition,’ but this term accurately describes the substance of these letters.”

While DeLay and his supporters have pointed out that admonition does not exist under House rules, and thus claimed victory when the ethics committee declined to move ahead with a formal investigation of Bell’s charges, Hefley and Mollohan believe they are on safe ground. Admonition will allow the ethics committee to warn a Member about improper conduct without having to go through a full-scale investigation and the issuance of a “Statement of Alleged Violations,” which then has to be voted on by the full ethics committee. The Member can also appeal at that point, further slowing down the ethics process.

Hefley and Mollohan view admonition as a “mild rebuke” or “informal sanction” that can be issued without an investigation according to a source familiar with their thinking.

Hefley and Mollohan also will have to spell out their views on log rolling and fundraising from interested parties while legislation is being considered, issues that were raised in both the Smith and DeLay cases. GOP leaders have privately complained that the ethics committee has created new, and unworkable, standards for the leadership on those two issues, although they are refraining from commenting publicly until they see what the committee produces.

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