Ethics Panel’s Next Move on Massa Hard to Gauge

Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:49pm

Despite the encouragement of House lawmakers, it remains to be seen whether the chamber’s ethics committee will move to set up an investigative subcommittee tied to sexual harassment allegations involving ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) — even as the committee appeared to be pressing ahead with its probe last week.

The House voted to refer a Republican-sponsored resolution for an inquiry into the allegations against Massa and the House reactions to the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, on March 11.

But the committee is under no obligation to respond to the resolution and has not indicated whether it will open an investigative subcommittee, even as at least one Congressional office reported contact from the committee last week.

“As we have since the allegations against Mr. Massa were brought to our attention, we are working with the Ethics Committee,” said a Wednesday statement from Katie Grant, spokeswoman to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We have been contacted by the Ethics Committee, and we are cooperating fully.”

Aides to Hoyer were first alerted to the allegations against Massa in February and directed the New York lawmaker’s aide to report the matter to the ethics committee within 48 hours, or threatened to do so themselves.

An aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would not discuss last week whether the office had been contacted for testimony or documents. “As the Speaker said, our staff will fully cooperate with the Ethics Committee,” spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.

Media reports have indicated Pelosi’s office received complaints about Massa’s living arrangements after an October report in the (Hornell, N.Y.) Evening Tribune disclosed that he lived with several aides in a Capitol Hill townhouse.

Massa is alleged to have sexually harassed one or more of his aides. In network interviews earlier this month, Massa denied wrongdoing, even as he acknowledged inappropriate “salty language” and physical contact.

The ethics committee announced March 4 that it had opened a self-initiated inquiry into “matters related to allegations involving Representative Eric Massa,” a broad statement that could encompass aspects including Democratic leaders’ response to the accusations.

Although Congressional observers and some Members have suggested that inquiry closed when Massa resigned on March 7 — removing him from the committee’s jurisdiction — the committee has not publicly confirmed the status of that inquiry.

Because that probe may have focused on Democratic leaders’ response to the allegations prior to Massa’s resignation as well as his specific behaviors, the Members or his former aides who are still employed by the House would continue to be under the committee’s jurisdiction.

The committee opened its initial Massa inquiry under an internal regulation formally referred to as Rule 18(a), which allows the panel’s chairwoman and ranking member to initiate an investigation.

Unlike some methods that the ethics panel may use to start an investigation, such as the receipt of a formal complaint from a Member, inquiries under Rule 18(a) do not trigger any mandatory deadlines for votes or other actions.

There is also no requirement for the committee to announce the start or end of such an inquiry, although it opted to acknowledge the review in the Massa case.

Rob Walker, an attorney with Wiley Rein who served as a top aide to the Senate and the House ethics committees, said that in the event the committee elects to move from a self-initiated inquiry to a formal subcommittee in the course of an investigation, the panel could simply carry over the information that it has gathered.

“There doesn’t have to a be a gap between the two,” Walker said. “If the subcommittee is established, there’s no reason why any information gathered so far in the committee’s preliminary inquiry couldn’t be forwarded to and made part of the investigative subcommittee’s inquiry.”

He later added: “There certainly have been many occasions in the past where self-initiated inquiries by the chair and ranking member have lead to the establishment of an investigative subcommittee.”

Moreover, the panel is not bound by its initial inquiry, Walker said, and can adjust the investigation’s focus if it deems it appropriate.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Republicans will push a second resolution on the House floor to demand a formal subcommittee investigation this week.

“Everyone is preoccupied with health care … but we remain determined to get the facts about what Democratic leaders knew, when they knew it and what they did,” a GOP leadership aide said.

Republicans compare the demand for a formal subcommittee to Democrats’ call for the same kind of investigation in 2006 into ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned from the House after reports emerged that he wrote sexually themed messages to a former House page.

Foley resigned the day after media reports on the allegations, and at the same time, Pelosi, who was then the Minority Leader, sponsored a resolution demanding the ethics panel create an investigative subcommittee to review Foley’s actions and the House’s response. Although Foley was not subject to the ethics committee’s jurisdiction, the inquiry focused on Republican leadership and aides at the time.

That resolution was ultimately referred to the ethics committee, which opened a subcommittee into the matter one week later. The committee did not, however, actually act on the resolution itself by returning the measure to the House.