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Pelosi Presses Hastert on Ethics Investigations

House Minority Leader Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Wednesday to join her in pressing the ethics committee to quickly chose a new chief counsel so that the panel can begin investigating allegations of ethics violations against a half-dozen lawmakers.

While Pelosi does not single out any particular Member for investigation, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — who stepped down from the GOP leadership last week after being indicted for his role in the 2002 Texas legislative races — has asked the ethics committee on his own to look into whether he violated House rules during several overseas trips he took with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff was indicted in August on federal mail and wire fraud charges, and Justice Department officials are continuing to probe his business dealings with American Indian tribes.

Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the ethics committee, have been interviewing applicants for the chief counsel job, and the two lawmakers are expected name their choice when Congress returns from the Columbus Day recess Oct. 18.

Mollohan defended the length of time it has taken the committee to move forward on the staffing front.

“I know it seems like a long time, but this is not an easy position to fill, given the experience with that position in the recent past, and given the delayed process we have gone through in organizing the committee this year,” Mollohan said in an interview Wednesday. “In light of both of those unfortunate circumstances, I am frankly pleased with the quality of the resumes we’ve gotten on this. We are well into the interview stage and we’re into the final interview process. I hope we make an offer in the near future and that that offer would be accepted in the near future.”

Mollohan indicated that he expects this hiring to take place after the Columbus Day recess.

Mollohan also wants the committee to hire between three and six lawyers for potential investigative subcommittees before the ethics committee initiates preliminary probes of the DeLay case, as well as those against other lawmakers. So far, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) is the only Member for whom an investigative subcommittee has already been authorized. The Washington Democrat is being investigated for his role in circulating an illegally taped phone call between House GOP leaders in January 1997.

Pelosi, however, used a letter to Hastert on Wednesday to berate the Speaker over the ethics committee’s failure to begin any substantive work during this session of the 109th Congress, with the California Democrat blaming the GOP leadership for the delay.

“The causes of this failure are well known: the replacement of the Committee’s Chair; the now rescinded partisan change in the rules under which the Committee operates; and the failed attempt to hire staff in violation of House rules,” Pelosi wrote to Hastert.

“The continuing chronicle of credible allegations of misconduct on the part of Members makes it absolutely imperative that the Ethics Committee immediately devote its full attention to the purpose for which it was created — upholding a high ethical standard in the House.”

Pelosi added: “I request, therefore, that we jointly communicate to the Ethics Committee our strong belief that it must select a Chief Counsel and an investigative staff without further delay so the committee can conduct its critical business.”

An aide to Hastert suggested that the Pelosi letter was simply intended to generate headlines.

“It looks like the pressure is getting to Minority Leader Pelosi to show real leadership, but she can’t help getting distracted by trying to politicize the ethics process,” said Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s communications director.

However, Pelosi is not the only one seeking to increase the pressure on the ethics committee to act. On Tuesday, a group of nine government watchdog groups known as the Congressional Ethics Coalition sent a letter to Hastings and Mollohan urging them to begin investigations into more than a half-dozen lawmakers.

The coalition — which includes Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21, among others — slammed the ethics committee for failing to address the perception of growing corruption on Capitol Hill by “making itself part of the problem, rather than offering solutions.”

The coalition asked the committee to look into allegations against seven Members — a bipartisan group that includes DeLay, McDermott and Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), William Jefferson (D-La.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).

Cunningham and Jefferson already face federal investigations — the Justice Department is looking into the California Republican’s ties to a defense contractor, while Jefferson is allegedly the target of an FBI sting operation over his dealings with a Virginia high-tech firm.

Ney also had extensive dealings with Abramoff, while Weldon and Conyers allegedly used their Congressional offices to benefit family members.

Ney, Conyers and Weldon were all the subject of preliminary investigations by the ethics panel last year, although no decision was made about starting full-scale probes.

With FBI agents and Justice Department officials already conducting investigations into Cunningham and Jefferson, House sources say it is difficult to imagine the ethics committee undertaking anything other than the most cursory investigations into these matters, at least until it is clear whether there will be federal charges filed.