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Critics Slam Hastings’ Dismissal of Ethics Staff

House Democrats and ethics watchdog groups criticized GOP leaders Wednesday following reports that Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the new chairman of the House ethics committee, has sacked several longtime staffers on the panel, including John Vargo, the staff director and chief counsel, and Paul Lewis, a counsel.

While Hastings’ decision to replace the staff at the committee was widely expected, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Hastings’ action was part of a calculated weakening of the ethics process by the GOP leadership in the wake of the repeated reprimands issued to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) last year.

“Chairman Hastings’ firing of two highly respected members of the committee’s professional staff is one more step in the elimination of consideration of ethical violations in the House of Representatives,” Hoyer said in a statement released by his office.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed Hoyer’s assertion. “The Republicans’ ethics purge continues,” Pelosi said in a statement. “First the Chairman was ousted, then independent Members were kicked off the Ethics Committee, and now the Republicans have fired highly respected staffers. Who’s next?”

Ethics groups also lashed out at Hastings, who was appointed chairman of the ethics committee just two weeks ago, replacing Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.). Both Hefley and Vargo have been bitterly criticized by Republicans for their handling of the investigations of DeLay and former Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) last year, and once Hefley was gone, GOP insiders were certain that Vargo would be following him out the door shortly thereafter.

“The decision of House ethics committee Chairman Doc Hastings to fire professional staff members of the ethics committee is just the latest step in the wholesale purging of the ethics committee by House Republican leaders,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) took Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) off the committee when they objected to the decision to replace Hefley.

“I assume the next move to be made by Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader DeLay and ethics committee Chairman Hastings will be to clear out the furniture from the Ethics Committee office and turn it into a storeroom.”

Hastings’ office defended his decision to replace Vargo and Lewis as standard practice for a new chairman and said he would work closely with Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) to select a new staff director. “Anyone suggesting these decisions were made for partisan reasons is flat-out wrong,” said Ed Cassidy, Hastings’ top aide.

Vargo, 52, has been with the committee since 1996 and took over as staff director and chief counsel in 2003. Some senior GOP leadership aides privately raised objections when Hefley elevated Vargo to the top staff position on the panel, but the Colorado Republican stuck with his choice. There is no word on a successor for Vargo yet.

Lewis, a former Justice Department lawyer, started with the ethics committee in 1997 and played a major role in the expulsion proceedings against then-Rep. Jim Traficant (Ohio).

In addition to his criticism of Vargo and Lewis’ departure, Wertheimer also issued a public challenge to Hastings on Wednesday, urging the Washington Republican to continue ethics investigations of at least four lawmakers that were begun in the 108th Congress, including DeLay. The other Members include Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Wertheimer also urged Hastings to begin a probe of the activities of former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had ties to a number of GOP lawmakers.

“All of the pending ethics matters need to be re-placed on the ethics committee agenda for the 109th Congress. The committee should investigate these matters, report its findings to the public, and take appropriate action to hold House Members and staff accountable for any violations of ethics rules and standards that may have occurred,” Wertheimer wrote in a letter to Hastings.

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