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Mollohan, Pa. Special Put Ethics in Spotlight

A pair of imminent elections in northern Appalachia could provide some early clues of the potency of the ethics issue in the midterm balloting.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) faces a serious challenge in today’s primary from an opponent who has made the longtime Congressman’s ethics a centerpiece of his campaign. Should Mollohan survive that intraparty test, ethics will again be a major issue in what is likely to be his toughest re-election race.

One week later, in a politically competitive swath of southwestern Pennsylvania that abuts Mollohan’s district, a longtime aide to Rep. John Murtha (D) is struggling to defend his late boss’s ancestrally Democratic but culturally conservative 12th district seat in a special election that has drawn significant national attention.

Like Mollohan, Murtha drew considerable scrutiny for his use of appropriations earmarks to deliver federal funds for his economically struggling district, as well as the political support he received from beneficiaries of that largess. Democrat Mark Critz, Murtha’s former district director, is such a close surrogate of the late Congressman that the election will say as much about Murtha’s legacy as it does about Critz’s campaign.

Republicans see both races as opportunities for voters to send a message to a Democratic leadership that promised to rid Congress of corruption upon taking control of both chambers four years ago.

Mollohan and Critz “are two candidates who have their own separate ethics baggage, but they are a small part of a larger story about how this Democrat Congress is knee-deep in the swamp of corruption they promised to drain in 2006,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“It’s going to be a case that we’re going to continue to make regardless of the outcome of these races,” he added.

Democrats say that they’ve enacted ethics reforms that ensure transparency and accountability in how Congress conducts business. They scoff at Republican criticism of Democrats’ ethical conduct as a case of throwing stones from a glass house.

“Republicans’ hypocrisy knows no bounds as a growing number of their highly touted candidates have come under fire for their serious ethics problems,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

As an example, he pointed to the comeback campaign of former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who lost his re-election bid four years ago in part because Democrats linked him to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Democratic consultant Gary Nordlinger said that GOP scandals from 2006 are “just not far enough behind us for them to have any real credibility on that.”

David Avella, the executive director of GOPAC and a former executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party, suggested that voters across the nation this cycle will pay more attention to the ethical behavior of Members. Many voters see Congress as immune or detached from the everyday economic struggles in their states and districts.

“During times of economic anxiety, personal characters of a candidate are all the more pronounced and all the more play a role,” Avella said. “In this time when people are very worried economically about what’s going on, particularly in a place like West Virginia and particularly in a place like Murtha’s district, they’re looking more at who the people are that’s representing them.”

In the West Virginia race, Mollohan is facing a rare competitive primary from state Sen. Mike Oliverio, whose television ads have called attention to Mollohan’s use of earmarks to deliver federal funds to West Virginia nonprofit groups run by friends and campaign contributors, some of whom participated in real estate deals with him.

“Isn’t it time for integrity and honor again?” a narrator says in one of Oliverio’s television ads.

Mollohan’s campaign has denounced Oliverio’s criticism as politically motivated attacks initiated by conservative opponents of the Congressman. Mollohan has repeatedly said that he was exonerated in January, when the Justice Department said it ended a nearly four-year Mollohan probe.

Ethics has also emerged as an issue in the Pennsylvania contest, where Republicans are raising questions about Critz’s service as a top aide to Murtha, who was well-known on Capitol Hill for his dogged pursuit of earmarks.

One television ad from the NRCC attacked what it said was Critz’s “disturbing pattern on ethics” because he was once questioned as a staffer in a House probe and received some campaign contributions from beneficiaries of earmarks he helped secure. And a Burns ad charged that Critz “was investigated by the congressional ethics office,” though it actually probed Murtha and found no evidence linking earmarks to contributions.

Critz denounced Burns’ spot as an attack on Murtha and responded in his own advertisement that Burns has “gone way too far when you attack someone who is no longer here to defend himself.”

The ethics issue is front and center in some other races Republicans are targeting. In the race for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk (R) has moved into a slight lead in the polls over state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) in large part because of scrutiny over loans his family’s bank gave to some unsavory characters.

A Giannoulias loss in that contest would be a symbolic and substantive defeat for the Obama administration, which implemented strict new ethics requirements for administration officials.

While Republicans have no chance of supplanting Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) in his staunchly Democratic district in and around Harlem, the ethics controversies that have swirled around the former Ways and Means chairman help explain why he could face a difficult primary. Rangel resigned the committee chairmanship in March after the ethics committee admonished him for accepting Caribbean trips from corporations in violation of House gift rules. Rangel has denied wrongdoing.

Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, a namesake son of an ethically damaged Congressman whom Rangel unseated in a primary four decades ago, and former Rangel aide Vince Morgan are challenging Rangel in the primary.

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