Ethics Committee Has Slow Start

Posted March 9, 2011 at 6:14pm

Following a year in which it conducted more than 100 inquiries and a rare public trial, the House Ethics Committee has had a glacial start in the 112th Congress.

Although the Ethics panel has taken small steps in 112th Congress — issuing committee rules in February, posting wanted ads for staff vacancies — sources familiar with the panel, as well as government reform advocates who monitor the committee, agreed the panel is moving slowly.

“Clearly the Ethics Committee has been struggling in this Congress. It is in minor disarray,” Public Citizens’ Lisa Gilbert said. “There are outstanding issues.”

Among the problems that Gilbert cited are staff vacancies that account for nearly a third of the panel’s authorized staff.

At a recent House Administration Committee hearing on annual budgets, Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) said only 20 of the 29 staff positions are filled. That includes two aides, Deputy Chief Counsel Morgan Kim and attorney Stacey Sovereign, who have been on administrative leave from the panel since November.

Bonner said the committee has been inundated with applications for the open positions but also indicated it could take the panel months to fill some of those posts.

Other vacancies include the panel’s staff director and chief counsel as well as five other counsel jobs. Both Bonner and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) must also agree on who should serve as the panel’s top aide.

In addition, as of Wednesday, Republican and Democratic leaders had yet to announce the slate of Members who could be called to carry out investigations for the Ethics panel.

Under House rules, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) must each nominate 10 lawmakers — in addition to those Members on the Ethics Committee — to serve on investigative subcommittees.

Bonner declined to comment through a spokesman on whether the lack of a subcommittee pool is affecting the panel’s ability to complete several outstanding inquiries.

But sources close to the Ethics panel said the lack of a subcommittee pool is not a significant concern — the full committee may pursue investigations on its own — noting that the nominations have, in some years, occurred as late as May.

According to a January report, however, the Ethics Committee had more than a dozen “investigative matters” ongoing at the end of the 111th Congress, including two that had been under the control of investigative subcommittees.

“There’s a desire from our community and then from the public at large to see outstanding ethics cases resolved. Certainly the Congress suffers from the public having a lack of confidence in their ability to police themselves, so any outstanding cases only feed that problem,” Gilbert said.

The Ethics Committee has closed one review in 2011, announcing in January that it would not pursue allegations forwarded by the Office of Congressional Ethics that fundraising events held by three lawmakers may have violated House rules.

But among those unresolved matters is the Ethics Committee’s investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

An investigative subcommittee charged Waters in August with violating House rules, but in November the full Ethics panel suspended a scheduled ethics trial after announcing that it had uncovered new evidence in the case that same month. Both Kim and Sovereign, who had worked on the Waters inquiry, were suspended the same day the trial was postponed.

At that time, the Ethics panel announced the case would be “recommitted” to the same investigative panel for further review.

The Ethics Committee has not indicated publicly whether or how it intends to pursue the investigation in the current cycle — in the House, investigative subcommittees must be reconstituted to continue in a new Congress, but the panel could also elect to hire a special counsel.

A Waters aide declined to comment for this article, but it is expected that the California lawmaker would raise objections to a new investigation, as she has previously.

In November, Waters accused the Ethics Committee of violating its own rules, arguing that it is not permitted to amend the Statement of Alleged Violation, the formal document used to charge House lawmakers with rules violations, it issued against her in August.

Sources familiar with the case said Waters also privately objected to the membership of the investigative subcommittee, arguing that the lawmakers, who voted to charge her in August, could no longer be impartial when the case was returned to them in November.

The subcommittee charged Waters with violating House rules over allegations that her chief of staff tried to secure federal support for a bank in which Waters and her husband held hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock. She has denied wrongdoing.

Waters is expected to make similar objections should the Ethics Committee appoint a new investigative panel that includes the same Members this session.

Ethics leaders may also need to reappoint a subcommittee in the investigation of matters related to ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), who resigned from the House a year ago amid accusations that he sexually harassed several of his aides. An Ethics subcommittee was assigned to review the related issues, including when House Democratic leaders learned of the accusations and how they responded. The panel did not issue a report before the end of the last Congress.