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Ethics Staffing Slow As Panel’s Caseload Mounts

As the House returns from the month-long August recess, the top two Members of the ethics committee, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), face new questions on when they will complete hiring staff for their panel, as well as what cases they will take up once they have investigators in place.

Hastings and Mollohan, chairman and ranking member of the committee, hope to select a new chief counsel/staff director by the end of September or early October, according to sources close to the panel. Mollohan also wants to hire at least two additional investigators before initiating any inquiries, and Hastings is expected to accede to that request.

But the slow pace of hiring signals that the committee will likely not have completed a preliminary investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) over his dealings with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff by the end of this year. DeLay then faces the possibility of a second straight election cycle in which the ethics committee releases findings on an investigation of him before voters go to the polls, a daunting challenge for even the most politically astute Member.

Hastings and Mollohan have begun reviewing résumés of applicants for the chief counsel post, said the sources. The new chief counsel will have to be approved by both men, and with the leadership of each party monitoring the vetting process closely, the new counsel will have to be someone viewed as free from any partisan bias.

“The bar is very high for the Republicans,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “Any sign of partisan background in a candidate will be met with strong opposition and continue the stalemate of a non-functioning ethics committee, one that is unprecedented and unacceptable.”

Once a new chief counsel and additional investigators are in place, the ethics committee is expected to initiate informal probes into DeLay and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), both of whom have ties to Abramoff. Abramoff and a former business associate recently were indicted in Florida on federal fraud charges related to their purchase of a Miami-based gambling cruise ship company.

Neither DeLay nor Ney have been implicated in that case, but the two lawmakers face questions about their dealings with Abramoff on other issues, as well as allegations that Abramoff may have improperly funded overseas trips taken by the two men and their aides.

Those two informal probes could become full-blown investigations featuring investigative subcommittees with subpoena power appointed to oversee the inquiries, according to House insiders and ethics experts.

Abramoff’s indictment in Florida, however, could present problems for a Congressional ethics probe. Traditionally, the ethics committee has steered clear of cases in which federal or state officials are already investigating Members over allegations of criminal conduct, as was the case last year when the ethics committee declined to look into a case involving DeLay associates already being probed by a Texas grand jury.

But that abstention by the panel is not an ironclad one, and the committee in the past initiated its own probes of former Reps. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and Jay Kim (R-Calif.) even as the Justice Department was investigating the lawmakers.

Regarding Abramoff’s indictment in Florida, legal experts suggest that case is so specific — centering on alleged efforts in September 2000 by Abramoff and Adam Kidan, his then business partner, to falsify loan documents used to help purchase Sun Cruz Casinos — that the ethics committee could begin its own investigation of DeLay and Ney without jeopardizing the government’s case.

“I don’t see any problem for the ethics committee on that front,” said a GOP ethics lawyer who requested anonymity. “They can do whatever they want.”

Where there may be problems, however, is if a Washington, D.C.-based federal grand jury investigating Abramoff over his dealing with American Indian tribes indicts the former lobbyist. Ney, in particular, has faced allegations that he attempted to help Abramoff enact legislation to help one of his tribal clients in return for campaign contributions, a charge that the Ohio Republican has vehemently denied. If Abramoff were indicted by the grand jury over his actions on behalf of Indian tribes, then any probe of Ney could touch directly on that case.

“Ney, in a weird way, could benefit if Abramoff were indicted again,” said the GOP lawyer. “There is no way Abramoff could or would testify before the ethics committee, so it becomes all Ney’s side of the story.”

Republicans are not alone in facing ethics problems, however. An investigative subcommittee has already been appointed to look into Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) leaking of an illegal recorded 1997 phone call between House GOP leaders. McDermott and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been involved in a long-running legal dispute over the tape, and McDermott could end up having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees in the case. A complaint with the ethics panel against McDermott was filed by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), a close Boehner ally.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) also faces questions over potential violations of House ethics rules. Several House insiders predict that the ethics panel will approve a full-blown investigation into whether Conyers improperly allowed partisan political activity by his staff designed to benefit Conyers’ wife, who was running for a state office.

Other lawmakers, including Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), could also come under scrutiny by the Ethics panel as well. All three have been alleged in media reports to have used their official offices to help out business activities by family members.

Two other Members — Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and William Jefferson (D-La.) — are the subject of ongoing federal corruption investigations, and the outcome of those probes will have an impact on whether the ethics committee gets involved in either case.

Cunningham is being investigated by a federal task force over his ties to a defense contractor, MZM Inc., and its former CEO, Mitchell Wade. Wade purchased Cunningham’s San Diego-area home in 2003 and then later resold it at a $700,000 loss. Cunningham also lived on a yacht berthed in Washington that was owned by Wade. MZM, with backing from Cunningham and other lawmakers, has helped snare more than $160 million in federal defense contracts, mainly in intelligence-related activities. Cunningham serves on the House Appropriations and Intelligence committees. Cunningham, who has stated that he did nothing wrong in his dealings with Wade, has already announced his decision to retire from Congress at the end of next year.

Jefferson is being investigated over his dealings with a high-tech startup company. The Maryland home of a top Nigerian official with ties to Jefferson was searched by the FBI in early August. Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

Both Cunningham and Jefferson have faced searches of their homes and other property by federal agents. In Jefferson’s case, federal agents reportedly found a bundle of cash in his freezer, according to the Washington Post.

As is the case with the Abramoff-related probes, the ethics committee will have to move cautiously to not interfere with the Justice Department investigation into either lawmaker, although that does not mean the committee can’t begin a probe into either lawmaker on its own.

“Just because the Justice Department is looking into something, that doesn’t preclude the ethics committee from investigating as well,” warned a senior House Democrat familiar with the situation. “The ethics committee has the authority to do what it must to guard the integrity of the House, and it will do so how it best sees fit.”