Ethics Must Still Settle Last Year’s Issues

Committee Has New Chairman, New Name and New Offices but Old Business

Posted January 4, 2011 at 6:59pm

The House Ethics Committee will move into new office space in the 112th Congress with a new chairman and a new official name, but it still might need to address some old issues.

At the close of the 111th Congress, the panel had yet to publicly resolve its work on multiple inquiries — including allegations involving Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and an investigation tied to ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) — as well as internal staff issues and other matters.

Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) tapped Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) in late December to serve as the panel’s chairman, but Republican and Democratic leaders must still dole out the committee’s remaining nine seats, a universally unpopular assignment among lawmakers. The Ethics Committee is typically among the last committees to organize at the start of a new Congress.

Spokesmen for incoming Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Boehner could not confirm Tuesday when those assignments will be announced. 

But when the committee does convene, it must determine whether to continue any of the work begun by its previous incarnation, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. 

Among its outstanding tasks is an ethics trial over whether Waters violated House rules. The committee indefinitely postponed it in November.

At the time, the committee announced it had uncovered new evidence in the case — in which Waters’ chief of staff, Mikael Moore, is alleged to have tried to secure federal support for a bank in which Waters and her husband held hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock — and would return the matter to an investigative subcommittee for further review.

Waters has denied wrongdoing in the case and has criticized the committee for its attempt to reopen an investigation.

It is not unusual for Ethics to re-establish an investigative subcommittee in a new Congress when work remains incomplete. But the Waters case may represent the first time an investigative panel has been directed to reconvene after issuing charges against a Member, which the panel did in August.

Should Ethics opt to re-establish the subcommittee, however, it could give Waters a new opportunity to object to the panel’s membership.

Under the Ethics panel’s internal rules, a Member under investigation can ask for any member of a subcommittee to be disqualified. But the rules also state that each subcommittee member remains “the sole judge” of whether he or she should leave the panel.

In December, Waters also sought to force an investigation into the suspension of two House ethics committee aides who worked on her case and were put on administrative leave the same day her trial was postponed.

A Waters aide did not respond Tuesday to an inquiry about whether the California lawmaker will reintroduce a privileged resolution to establish a task force to review the committee’s actions, as she did last month.

Attorney Richard Sauber said Tuesday that Deputy Chief Counsel Morgan Kim and Ethics counsel Stacey Sovereign remain on administrative leave.

“We’re waiting to see what the new constituted committee is going to do with respect to staffing in general and my two clients in particular,” Sauber said.

Last year, the committee also established an investigative subcommittee in April to review the allegations involving Massa, including when House Democratic leaders learned of the accusations and how they responded. Massa resigned from the House in March in the wake of accusations that he sexually harassed several of his aides. 

Ethics did not issue a public report in that investigation before the House adjourned sine die in December. The committee would need to vote to renew the special panel and reappoint its membership to continue that investigation. 

New York-based attorney Milo Silberstein of the law firm Dealy & Silberstein confirmed Tuesday that he continues to represent Massa, but he said he could not answer questions on the Ethics subcommittee’s inquiry. Massa has previously denied wrongdoing.

Roll Call reported in December that at least one former Massa aide reached an unspecified settlement over allegations that the lawmaker’s office operated in a “highly sexualized environment.” 

In mid-December, the committee also announced it was reviewing allegations regarding the fundraising efforts of Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Tom Price (R-Ga.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.) in advance of the 2009 financial reform vote.

The trio of cases were referred to Ethics from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which reviews potential rules violations and recommends cases to the committee.

The Ethics Committee is required to announce whether it will pursue those allegations or dismiss the cases before Jan. 29. 

If the committee cannot reach a decision by that date, the OCE could opt to release the reports on its own, as it did in early 2010 when it recommended an investigation of now-Gov.-elect Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia. Deal resigned from the House to pursue his gubernatorial bid shortly before an Ethics Committee deadline to release an OCE report into his activities. When ethics did not release the report, OCE’s board of directors voted to do so.

The OCE’s eight-member board, comprising former Members, a former House officer and a former Federal Election Commission aide, is not required to take such an action, however, and could also opt to wait on the new Ethics Committee to act.

In addition to those probes, the Ethics panel may also continue work in the 112th on other investigations it initiated in 2010 but didn’t publicly confirm.

At any time, the committee may pursue inquiries under an internal regulation known as Rule 18(a), which allows the panel’s chairwoman and ranking member to initiate an investigation but does not trigger any mandatory deadlines for votes or other actions.

The committee may continue work on those probes in the new session without a full committee vote.

Ethics must also address internal issues, including setting the panel’s rules and hiring a new staff director, following the December resignation of its staff director and chief counsel, Blake Chisam. 

Because the panel’s staff director is selected in a bipartisan agreement, the committee cannot hire a new top aide until Democrats appoint a ranking member to the panel.

In the meantime, a Bonner spokesman confirmed Tuesday that Kelle Strickland will continue to serve as the lawmaker’s counsel on the panel.

In the previous session, when Bonner served as ranking member, the Alabama lawmaker and then-Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) proposed improvements to several areas under the committee’s jurisdiction, including ethics training, the financial disclosure process and forms documenting privately sponsored travel. 

The committee unveiled a new tracking system for ethics training in 2010 but did not make public changes to the other targeted areas.

The committee will relocate to office space in the Longworth House Office Building in the 112th Congress. The Appropriations Committee will move into the basement office suite that had housed the Ethics panel.