Staff Turnover Hobbles Ethics

Experts Call Loss of Ethics Staff Chief a Blow

Posted July 14, 2008 at 6:42pm

The staff director for the House ethics committee has reportedly resigned, raising the prospect that both the House and Senate ethics committees may be operating without a permanent staff director in the runup to the national political conventions.

While both committees still have experienced staffs, outside observers suggest that their work may be significantly hampered without having permanent directors in place.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill said Monday that William O’Reilly, staff director and chief counsel for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has announced that he will leave the committee by early August and return to the private sector.

O’Reilly refused to confirm or deny the reports of his departure, saying he would not discuss personnel matters. Spokesmen in the offices of Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) referred reporters to O’Reilly for comment and did not make the Members available for interviews.

Robert Walker, the Senate Ethics Committee chief counsel and staff director, left the Hill in June and went into private practice at Wiley Rein. Since his departure, John Sassaman — who also worked at the House committee for six years — has been acting director of the Senate committee.

Former House committee Staff Director Ted Van Der Meid said the loss of the staff director can handicap the committee’s operation. “The committee is somewhat paralyzed until that staff position is filled,” Van Der Meid said. “The staff director runs the staff and often is looked to by the chair and ranking member for advice and guidance on investigations and the committee’s agenda.”

The House committee was clearly hamstrung prior to O’Reilly’s arrival. When he was hired, the committee had been mired in partisan dispute for months.

In the wake of the committee’s rebuke of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Republicans had replaced Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman in early 2005, and Hastings, the new chairman, fired Staff Director John Vargo.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), then the ranking member of the committee, refused to allow the committee to reorganize, and a months-long standoff ensued over staffing and committee rules.

Republicans, who still controlled the House at the time, feared that O’Reilly — who made $1,250 in contributions to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign and to the Democratic National Committee in 2004 — would be a Democratic partisan.

Hastings finally relented and agreed to bring on O’Reilly as staff director in November 2005, hiring him away from law firm Jones Day. But it was still two months before O’Reilly took his job on the Hill. By the time he took office, the committee had been considered essentially dormant for a year.

Under O’Reilly, the committee investigated House leaders’ handling of the Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) scandal, in which the Congressman sent lewd messages to a House page, among other sensitive topics.

O’Reilly is expected to return to Jones Day, though the firm did not respond to requests for comment.

Craig Holman, a legislative representative for Public Citizen, said the absence of top staffers on the ethics committees “matters a great deal, especially now … this is the window where the ethics committees are developing and implementing and hopefully enforcing a lot of these new ethics rules.” Both the House and Senate committees have been providing new guidance on ethics rules for the Democratic and Republican conventions, the first since the adoption of sweeping new ethics regulations at the start of the 110th Congress.

Holman said Members in both chambers “don’t want to spend that much time wading in ethics issues” and they “really want the lead staffers to run the show.” Without a staff director in place, the committees may be “virtually headless,” Holman said.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.