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Sides Closer in Ethics Dispute

Despite Progress, Still No Deal

Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics committee, held their first face-to-face meeting in six weeks on Wednesday and reported making progress in resolving a staffing dispute that has paralyzed the panel, although no final deal was reached.

The continued standoff makes it likely that the committee will be unable to appoint a new chief counsel until at least September, much less hire the additional investigators that have already been authorized in the committee’s budget.

If those hurdles are not overcome, any new ethics probes, including a potential investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) over alleged violations of Congressional rules on overseas travel, may not begin until the fall at the earliest.

Mollohan said on Wednesday afternoon that he had reached an agreement with Hastings to end the battle over what authority, if any, their personal aides liaisons will have over the professional staff of the ethics committee, but Hastings insisted that was not the case.

“I remain hopeful this can be resolved soon, but we are not there yet,” said Hastings in a statement released by his office.

Mollohan, for his part, said he was in the process of drafting a memo that spelled out what he and Hastings had agreed upon during the hour-long meeting. Mollohan added that he hoped to send the memo to Hastings as early as today for his approval.

“I’m very pleased,” said Mollohan after his discussion with Hastings. “We aired these issues very forthrightly. We are going to be hiring a chief counsel/staff director. … That person will be the person who is in charge of all the professional staff, which is totally in accordance with the [ethics committee] rules.”

Mollohan later released a statement spelling out the outcome of the meeting in more detail: “Chairman Hastings and I met this afternoon for an extensive discussion of issues surrounding the professional staffing requirements of the Ethics Committee. I am pleased to report that we reached an agreement in principle that the person ultimately hired as the committee’s Chief Counsel-Staff Director would be in charge of the professional staff, and that our own personal designees — the so-called ‘shared staff’ — would have no managerial or supervisory role over that professional, nonpartisan staff.”

Mollohan added: “Although we have made significant progress, our agreement is not final, as some issues require further discussion. I look forward to working with the chairman to reach a formal agreement that will allow us to proceed with the committee’s crucially important work.”

The confusion over the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting demonstrates just how much distrust currently exists between Hastings and Mollohan.

Fully six months into the 109th Congress, the ethics committee has held just one meeting, and the two lawmakers have struggled to reach consensus on even the most basic procedures for running the panel.

Both Hastings and Mollohan released “Dear Colleague” letters on Wednesday justifying their position in the staffing dispute, which centers on the role that Ed Cassidy, Hastings’ top aide, will have with the ethics committee.

Hastings has sought to assert more control over the panel’s day-to-day operations via Cassidy, with an eye to making the committee more responsive to the needs of Members and Congressional staff.

Hastings has attempted to reassure Mollohan and the other Democrats on the ethics panel that Cassidy would play no role in any ethics investigation. In a June 28 letter to Mollohan, Hastings said his goal was ensure that he and Mollohan “become more actively engaged in jointly managing the work of a committee that has in recent years largely managed itself.”

To achieve that aim, Hastings proposed in late March to make Cassidy the “majority staff director,” an suggested that Mollohan appoint his own staffer as “minority staff director.”

But the Washington Republican backed away from that proposal after Mollohan objected that the plan would violate ethics committee rules.

Hastings then sought “expanded authority” for Cassidy and Mollohan’s top aide, Mary Colleen McCarty, and he offered some concessions to Mollohan in bid to win his support. For instance, Hastings suggested that the committee could move investigative staffers to another site to ensure that their work is not interfered with in any way.

Again, Mollohan objected, saying that committee rules prevent “shared staff” from having any say over professional staff, and that such personal aides must have no contact with an ethics panel staffer beyond the chief counsel. Mollohan’s position is that only he and Hastings can direct the committee staff on what actions to take.

In a May 12 meeting, the West Virginia Democrat said Hastings gave him two documents that would require the “senior [ethics] committee staff” to report to the chairman and ranking member through their liaisons, as well as allowing these aides to “discuss pending or potential investigations with professional staff members” other than the chief counsel.

Hastings, however, has objected to media characterizations of what he offered to Mollohan at the May 12 meeting.

“More particularly, I have been personally offended by a series of totally false reports about my current position since our last face-to-face meeting,” Hastings wrote to Mollohan Tuesday. “You will recall that when you and I met for for 2 1/2 hours on May 12th, I made absolutely clear to you that I was prepared to move forward under the same staffing model used at the committee in recent years by both Democrats and Republicans.”

Hastings said that he had “made every effort” to accommodate Mollohan’s concerns, but suggested that his Democratic counterpart was not interested in finding a “mutually agreeable way to take advantage of the flexibility” in ethics committee rules over the role of shared staff.

Following the May 12 meeting, there was no willingness shown by either side until this week on a potential compromise. But the level of partisan acrimony remains high, and some Republican insiders remain convinced that Mollohan is just playing a “bait and switch” game with them by seeming to appear reasonable in public while “playing hardball” in private.

These Republicans believe that Mollohan, at the direction of the Democratic leadership, is dragging out the ethics fight in order to ensure that any DeLay probe extends into next year, an election year.

Mollohan dismisses that charge, and insists that the “personal relations between me and Doc remain good.”

Democratic leaders may, however, offer a privileged resolution on the floor as early as today designed to pressure Republicans on the ethics impasse. One option under consideration is a call for an independent counsel to handle the DeLay case, although Democratic leadership aides cautioned at press time that no decision has been made on whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would authorize such a resolution.

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