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Rules Complicate Search for Counsel

Newly enacted ethics rules could raise unexpected hurdles for the select committee tasked with investigating an August voting snafu on the House floor as the panel edges into its investigative phase.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the six-member panel said Tuesday that the new rules should not hinder their ability to locate an independent counsel, even if those rules significantly narrow the available pool of attorneys.

“It represents a complication but not a barrier,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Select Committee to Investigate the Voting Irregularities of Aug. 2, 2007, as the panel is formally called. “We’re looking at a broad range of options.”

Under House ethics rules enacted in September, law firms must either prohibit employees from collecting taxpayer dollars for working on contract with Congressional panels or take the highly unlikely option of forgoing lucrative lobbying business.

The rule effectively eliminates heavyweights such as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Patton Boggs or McKenna Long & Aldridge from performing legal or investigative work for House committees.

The measure’s inclusion in the ethics and lobbying reform bill was sparked by Republican complaints earlier this year when the House Judiciary Committee contracted with Irvin Nathan, a senior partner at Arnold & Porter, to aid the investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys. At the time Nathan worked for the panel, collecting as much as $25,000 per month, Arnold & Porter continued to lobby the Judiciary panel on behalf of other clients.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) named Nathan as the new general counsel of the House on Tuesday.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D), the select panel’s chairman, said the search remains open. The Massachusetts lawmaker said that while “judgment and common sense” are prerequisites in the search, it will not be necessary for potential counsel to possess a background in parliamentary procedures.

“Obviously we want to get the right person with the right experience,” Delahunt said.

While the new lobbying rules could shrink the universe of potential candidates, he said he expects to find an attorney based in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Clearly we’re not binding ourselves to a particular geographical area, but I think we can find someone in Washington,” he said.

Pence said he would like to see the contract awarded to counsel with a background in parliamentary procedures, given the nature of the investigation.

“Chairman Delahunt and I are both committed to a high level of professionalism,” Pence added. In addition, he said it remains likely the House ethics committee could be asked to review the panel’s selection before it awards any contracts.

The House Administration Committee must also approve any consultants hired by the chamber’s committees.

A committee chairman must submit a letter requesting the House Administration panel’s approval, including a signed contract and the would-be consultant’s résumé. In addition, any would-be consultant must be approved by a majority of Members on the specific panel before the request can be approved.

According to guidelines on the House Administration panel’s Web site, no contract can exceed 12 months, or the end of the Congress, whichever comes first.

The select committee is to meet Thursday to hear testimony from former Parliamentarian Charles Johnson and current Chief Tally Clerk Mark O’Sullivan.