Skaggs Planning First Steps for Ethics Panel

Posted July 25, 2008 at 6:10pm

Former Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), the newly appointed chairman of the Office of Congressional Ethics, said Friday that he will speak to fellow board members this week to arrange its first formal meeting, though few observers expect the entity to become fully active before the end of the 110th Congress.

House leaders appointed board members to the new office on Thursday following months of negotiations.

A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday that deliberations over the budget and locating office space for the new entity are still ongoing.

The new board must also select nonpartisan staff for the office.

“We want to keep moving on this,” spokesman Brendan Daly said.

Even if it were fully readied, the ethics office, tasked with reviewing and recommending complaints to the full House ethics panel, faces a limited work period, with a pre-election blackout that begins in early September.

Nonetheless, government reform advocates praised the appointment of board members as a step forward.

“At this stage … the board has been named and now it is in the hands of the board members to ensure that the new office carries out the important responsibilities it has been given,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said.

Leading the office will be Skaggs and ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), who will serve as co-chairman.

“The challenge that all of us face, and I a little bit more as the designated chair, is to get this organization up and running and to create a transparent and efficient way of dealing with what are inherently pretty difficult situations for the people involved,” Skaggs said in a telephone interview Friday.

Given that the six active board members represent a diverse geographical area, the board must also address in the near future how much of its work may be done via teleconference or other technological means versus physical meetings.

“It’s one of the questions we’re going to have to ask,” Skaggs acknowledged. “It would be presumptuous to guess about how practicable my colleagues on the committee on the panel will find that kind of meeting arrangement and whether we can be sure it has the kind of security that will be necessary” for potentially sensitive discussions.

The former Colorado lawmaker, 65, who now serves as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, said he has not yet talked with Goss, but noted that the two have worked together during their time in the House.

“He and I were on the Intelligence Committee together and, I hope he agrees, worked together well in that setting, so we are not strangers to each other,” Skaggs said.

“I think that kind of relationship-building, when you serve in the committee like that together for a while, is a good base to build on, so I’m optimistic,” he added.

Goss, who was traveling Friday, expressed similar hope for the new office.

“Tackling ethics issues is always a challenge,” Goss said in a statement. “Now, the Speaker and the Leader have put forward a bold approach, and what appears to be a very good team, to build confidence in both the ethics process and its outcomes in the House. I am happy to participate and optimistic that this group can work in a non-partisan and productive manner.”

Skaggs, who served six terms in the House and surprised many observers when he opted to retire at the end of the 105th Congress and forgo a Senate bid, also sought to bolster bipartisanship during his tenure, founding the House Bipartisan Retreat with Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Fellow Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.), who served one term with Skaggs, praised his selection to the panel, noting his bipartisan efforts.

“I think David was the absolute best choice for this position,” DeGette said. “He’s one of the most ethical and thoughtful Members I served with. He’s very fair, he’s very even-handed and he’s very deliberative. He’s not going to make a rash decision.”

As the board’s co-chairman, Goss, 69, is the most recent House lawmaker among the group; six of the eight board members, including two alternates, are former Members.

The eight-term Florida Republican stepped down in 2004 to serve as director of the CIA, where he remained until 2006. While in the House, Goss served as chairman of the Intelligence Committee for eight years, and previously spent a decade working for the CIA before entering Florida politics in the mid-1970s.

During his tenure in the House, Goss also served on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, at a time when the panel investigated both the House Bank and Post Office scandals. He was also on the committee in 1997 when it recommended a reprimand and $300,000 fine against Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

More recently, Goss has spent time lecturing on intelligence matters as well as the environment, and has worked with former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) on projects including restoration of the Everglades.

Also serving on the board are ex-Reps. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (D-Calif.) and Karan English (D-Ariz.).

English served only one term in the House, losing a re-election bid to Republican J.D. Hayworth in 1994. Before her House term, English served as a local official, and also held seats in both the state House and Senate.

The Arizonan, 59, now serves as vice president for research at Northern Arizona University.

Burke, the first black woman to serve in Congress from California, spent three terms in the House until 1979. During her tenure, she also became the first House lawmaker to give birth while in office.

She unsuccessfully sought the California attorney general’s office in the 1978 election.

Since leaving the House, Burke, 75, went on to serve nearly 30 years on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors until her retirement this year.

Former House Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen and George Mason University School of Law professor Allison Hayward will also serve on the ethics board.

After his retirement from the House in 2007, Eagen moved to Durango, Colo., where he now serves as vice president for community relations for the Durango Mountain Resort.

Before serving nearly a decade as CAO, Eagen served as the Republican staff director for the then-House Education and the Workforce Committee and earlier as Rep. Bill Goodling’s (R-Pa.) chief of staff. He also worked in the office of then-Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.).

Hayward previously served as chief of staff and counsel to then-Federal Election Commissioner Bradley Smith. She has also worked as counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and several law firms specializing in election law and government ethics.

Former Reps. Abner Mikva (D-Ill.), 82, and Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), 79, were tapped to serve as alternates to the new ethics office board and will be called on in the event of a vacancy. Mikva served five terms in the House until 1980 while Frenzel served 10 terms until his retirement in 1990.