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Ethics Aide in Cross Hairs

Backers of Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) efforts to gain the right to continue practicing medicine have turned their fire on the staff of the Senate Ethics Committee.

In particular, Coburn’s allies have singled out the chief counsel for the committee, Robert Walker, accusing him of waging a personal battle to prevent Coburn from receiving some form of waiver to continue his practice.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee and a supporter of Coburn’s efforts over the past six months, accused Walker of behaving like an overzealous IRS agent, although he did not name Walker directly.

“A lot of this is being driven by an IRS-like staff member,” Lott said Wednesday.

John Hart, Coburn’s spokesman, charged that the entire waiver process was initiated unnecessarily by Walker shortly after Coburn’s election last November. At that time, Hart said, the counsel wrote to the Senator-elect informing him of the chamber rules that would not allow him to accept payment for medical services. As Hart told Roll Call in December, Coburn considered Walker’s letter “unsolicited, unofficial opinions from [Ethics Committee] staff that do not have any bearing on the issue until he is a Member of the Senate.”

Those rebukes of Walker, who declined to comment on the matter, drew their own counter-response from Senators who have worked closely with the committee counsel, including current Ethics Chairman George Voinovich (R-Ohio). Voinovich and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the vice chairman of the evenly divided panel, rejected Coburn’s initial request for a waiver shortly after he was sworn in, saying that Senate rules specifically forbid Senators from receiving compensation for professional services such as practicing law or medicine.

“Don’t blame Rob Walker, it’s not his fault,” Voinovich said. “I take responsibility and so does Sen. Johnson.”

“He’s done a very good job,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who as the top Democrat on Ethics helped hire Walker in late 2002. “We should beat up on a lot of people around here. But I think we should leave staff alone, especially when dealing with the Ethics Committee.”

The fight over Coburn’s medical service is turning more and more into a battle over the political independence of the Ethics Committee, with Walker in the crosshairs. Voinovich, who is in the uncomfortable position of rejecting a fellow Republican’s request to continue delivering babies in his obstetrics practice in Muskogee, Okla., is also feeling the heat.

Walker, a former homicide prosecutor who also served in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, came aboard as chief counsel in January 2003, moving over from the same post on the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has requested that Coburn, Lott and Voinovich convene a meeting this week to try to hammer out a proposal they could then put before the entire GOP Conference, according to a senior aide. No final plan has been adopted, according to both the aide and Lott, who brandished a sheet of paper with several different proposals to allow Coburn to continue his practice on it.

One proposal, endorsed by Coburn’s staff this week, would create an even bigger showdown with Walker, Voinovich and the Ethics Committee. That plan called for adoption of a “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting Coburn’s ability to operate a not-for-profit clinic in which he would charge patients only enough to cover his costs, including the expensive medical malpractice insurance.

A draft of that language states the provision would apply only to the “practice of medicine,” and requires Senators who are doctors to charge “actual and necessary” expenses. Doctors would be required to document all expenses with the Ethics Committee to ensure they were not profiting from their practices.

But because the sense of the Senate resolution would not represent an official rules change, it would essentially serve only as a recommended interpretation of the rules. Coburn aides said this week that he would accept that as a validation of his position and most likely continue practicing medicine and charging patients on a no-net profit basis as he is currently doing under an agreement with Ethics that expires Friday.

Coburn wouldn’t expect the panel to act against him if a majority of the Senate supports him, Hart said. “But the Ethics Committee could ignore the overwhelming opinion of his colleagues.”

After Ethics rejected his waiver request last spring, Coburn turned to Lott and the Rules Committee to work on some sort of fix to the problem. That set up another unusual situation, with one chairman working to undo the actions of another chairman.

Lott seemed irked by Ethics’ work on the matter this week.

“I would have hoped that the Ethics Committee would have worked this out,” he said.

But Voinovich has some support from other GOP colleagues on the committee. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), an Ethics veteran, said Wednesday he disagreed with Coburn’s notion of the “citizen legislator,” the theme the Oklahoman championed on the campaign trail, arguing Senators would be better served if they also maintained jobs back home.

“When you go into Congress, that’s your job,” Thomas said. “When you come here, this is your commitment.”

Thomas said he was willing to hear out Coburn and Lott on whatever final proposal they craft, but added that he’s leaning against any rules tweak that opens the door to Senators practicing other professions.

The vitriol between Coburn and Walker has been brewing for some time. Earlier this year, Ethics ruled that Coburn had to pay out of his own pocket for pizza at a safe-sex slideshow he did for staff, as opposed to having sponsors pay for the food as was custom at previous safe-sex events he did in the House.

Earlier this year some in the conservative community spread the rumor that Walker was trying to get back at Coburn because the Oklahoman orchestrated a similar rules change in the House in 1997. It allowed Coburn and a handful of other doctors in the House to practice medicine, outmaneuvering the House ethics committee staff, which had initially rejected the request from Coburn, or so the rumor went.

Syndicated columnist Bob Novak published this version of events, accusing Walker of maintaining a vendetta against Coburn.

Walker, however, had nothing to do with the House fight. He had been working as a deputy counsel on the Senate committee in the mid-1990s before moving to the House spot in 1999.

Reid called Coburn “a wonderful man” but said this dispute is not one that has anything to do with staff issues. Rather, he argued, it’s about setting a precedent that creates a special provision solely for doctors.

“These are full-time jobs we have,” Reid said, indicating Coburn may have to re-evaluate his career priorities. “I think he has to make a decision.”

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