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Leaders of Ethics Panel Still Far Apart on Staffing

Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics committee, are no closer to solving a stubborn dispute over panel staffing and may actually be further from an agreement than they were before.

The two lawmakers did not meet last week, and no formal talks have been scheduled so far, GOP and Democratic sources said. The last meeting Hastings and Mollohan held was on May 12 and yielded nothing despite two and a half hours of face-to-face negotiations, noted the sources.

The dispute is centered on what authority Hastings, through his top aide, will have over day-to-day operations of the ethics committee, especially investigations. Hastings wants to be an “active chairman,” a GOP source said, and wants to make the committee more responsive to the needs of Members.

Mollohan and other top Democrats, though, remain distrustful of Republican intentions after the GOP leadership pushed through three ethics rules changes on the first day of the 109th Congress without consulting with the minority party.

While Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) eventually had to relent and allow a floor vote to restore the old rules — the most important of which ends the committee’s authority to dismiss a complaint after 45 days with no vote — Mollohan has taken a hard line in his talks with Hastings.

The West Virginia Democrat has stuck to the position that because the ethics committee’s Rule 6 states explicitly that “the staff as a whole and each individual member of the staff shall perform all official duties in a nonpartisan manner,” no Hastings aide detailed to the panel can have any authority over its operations.

In an interview last week, Mollohan declined to comment on his discussions with Hastings, other than to say they were “ongoing” and “unfinished.”

Privately, senior House GOP aides believe that Mollohan and the Democrats are dragging their feet on the staffing talks in order to defer any action on an ethics committee probe of the allegations against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). News reports have raised questions over whether the Texas Republican violated House ethics rules in taking several overseas trips to Scotland, Moscow and South Korea. Former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff accompanied DeLay on several of those trips, and there is evidence that Abramoff may have picked up the expenses for at least a portion of the DeLay junkets. That would be in violation of House rules. DeLay has vehemently denied any improper or unethical behavior, and the veteran lawmaker has publicly asked for the ethics committee to investigate the charges.

With the Justice Department and several Senate committees looking into Abramoff’s business activities, Republicans suspect Democrats of working to ensure that the DeLay ethics investigation extends into next year, when it can be used to maximum political effect.

Democrats reject that charge, stating that they are just trying to make Republicans adhere to the House ethics rules and not attempt to cut corners in an effort to exonerate the powerful Majority Leader.

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