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Ethics Deadlock Curbs Advice

The ongoing deadlock over the House ethics committee has left in limbo a number of lawmakers caught up in the growing controversy over Congressional travel, which emerged after revelations arose about trips taken by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Several lawmakers have sought counsel from the ethics committee about whether foreign trips they took part in during the past five years were illegally funded by lobbyists or registered foreign agents — but the ethics committee, paralyzed by a partisan battle over its rules for the 109th Congress, cannot provide any advice or guidance.

These Members could now face weeks of public questioning about their junkets — and the looming threat of an ethics probe — with no way of resolving it.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), ranking member on ethics, said on Friday that he will not allow the ethics committee to meet or formally organize until he secures a floor vote on overturning three Republican-drafted changes to ethics rules adopted at the start of the 109th Congress. The most important of these revisions — the most significant since a bipartisan task force rewrote the rules in 1997 — requires a majority vote in the ethics committee before an investigation can begin.

Mollohan and the four Democrats on the equally divided 10-member panel refused to allow the committee to organize last Thursday, bringing all committee functions to a halt. Mollohan and Democratic Party leaders are convinced that a number of Republicans, concerned about looking like they are weak on ethical scandals, will cross the aisle and vote with them if Mollohan’s proposal is ever brought up.

“I am totally sincere,” Mollohan said of his effort to roll back the ethics rules changes. The West Virginia Democrat said he “is going to try” to prevent any committee action until he gets his vote. The Republicans, he added, “did this because they could, not because they should have.”

Mollohan has filed a resolution to overturn the rule changes, but that proposal is not likely to reach the floor on its own. The resolution was referred the Rules subcommittee on rules and organization of the House, which is chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who was handpicked by the leadership earlier this year to chair the ethics committee.

Mollohan is also preparing a discharge petition that has been endorsed by 194 Democratic co-sponsors, plus Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

Top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have voiced strong support for Mollohan’s position in the ethics fight, even though several lawmakers from their party, including Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), have been caught up in the travel furor as well. All four took overseas trips paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, the registered foreign agent that is also alleged to have paid for a DeLay trip. Foreign agents cannot pay for Member or staff trips.

“In one of their first acts of the new Congress, the Republican leadership rammed through a cynical change to the Ethics Committee rules which crippled the Committee’s ability to investigate credible allegations of impropriety against Members,” Hoyer said in a statement released by his office on Friday.

House Republicans, including Hastings and Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), believe there is no reason at this moment to allow Mollohan a vote on his proposal. The ethics changes were part of the rules package approved on the first day of the session, and Republicans claim that if the Democrats’ proposal had merit, it would have won then.

They are also attacking the Democrats for bringing the ethics process to a halt, charging that it is part of a Democratic master plan to provoke an ethics war in hopes of winning the House back in 2006. “Democrats have shut down the ethics process,” said Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s communications director. “It’s up to the House Democrats to put the ethics process above partisan politics.”

The uproar over travel has hit Republicans harder than Democrats, and DeLay most of all. He had already come under scrutiny for a trip he took with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff to England and Scotland in 2000. Abramoff, who is under federal investigation over his multimillion-dollar lobbying efforts on behalf of Indian tribes, billed his law firm for the cost of the trip. Registered lobbyists cannot pay for Member trips.

Now, DeLay is coming under fire for a trip he took to South Korea in August 2001. Justice Department documents show that the trip, which included DeLay, his wife, Christine, and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), was paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, according to The Washington Post and Congress Daily. Susan Hirschmann, then DeLay’s chief of staff, also took part in the three-day visit to Seoul. Lobbyist Ed Buckham, DeLay’s former chief of staff, helped arrange the trip, and his firm had registered to lobby for KORUSEC.

GOP Reps. Tom Feeney (Fla.) and John Doolittle (Calif.), as well as staffers from both parties including a Pelosi aide, also took trips paid for by the Korean group.

In the meantime, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) is under scrutiny for a trip he took with Abramoff. Ney believed at the time that the National Center for Public Policy Research had paid for the trip, but media reports stemming from wide-ranging investigation into Abramoff’s activities have suggested otherwise.

Amid so many questions, aides to several lawmakers at the center of the controversy said they aren’t jumping to any immediate conclusions — or admitting culpability.

“Seems to me that the next step is to look at the process” for approving Congressional travel, said Mike DeCesare, a spokesman for McDermott, who in 2003 flew to Seoul. But DeCesare cast doubt on the idea that the Members themselves are to blame if indeed an infraction occurred.

Feeney’s chief of staff, Jason Roe, said that amid the controversy, his boss is taking the unusual step of vetting every privately funded trip he’s ever taken to make sure he doesn’t get any more unwelcome surprises.

On Thursday, Feeney penned a letter to the ethics committee seeking guidance on “what needs to be done by my office to correct any inaccurate information required by the Ethics Committee.” But with no committee in place, Feeney will not get an answer.

Whatever the outcome, privately some Members and aides are wondering whether they’ll end up being forced to cut checks to reimburse the parties that paid for their pricey trips. Legal experts suggested that issuing a refund itself could prove tricky. “Who do you cut the check to? We don’t know,” asked one staffer.

Adding to the confusion is the notion that the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council might have accidentally registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act instead of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Under LDA, the Members’ trips would be legal.

“There may be something to the argument that the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council didn’t need to register as a foreign agent,” said one legal expert who has closely followed this case. A source familiar with the council said his understanding was that there was no South Korean government financing of the organization, and that the FARA registration was a mistake that none of the lobbyists involved were aware of. “It was all privately funded,” said the source.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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