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No Slow Start for Ethics Committee This Year

With two formal probes under way, an outside attorney looking at whether the committee botched its investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and three ongoing examinations of Members who have been neither cleared nor sanctioned, the House Ethics Committee is poised to begin 2012 with a bigger bang than it did the year before.

During the first half of 2011, the committee’s work essentially stalled as it searched for a new staff director. It wasn’t until midsummer that the committee announced newly hired Staff Director Daniel Schwager had helped fill a “significant number of remaining staff positions”; its first investigations-related announcements came in July.

The biggest ethics news of last year occurred just weeks later when Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) announced that the committee had hired Washington attorney Billy Martin to “review, advise and assist” the committee with the Waters investigation.

The wording of the July 20 announcement made it clear that Martin’s first task was to investigate possible misconduct within the committee before deciding whether its probe of the California Democrat could continue.

“Serious allegations have been made about the Committee’s own conduct in this matter by Rep. Waters and others,” Bonner and Sánchez said in a joint statement at the time. “A thorough review of all of these allegations will be the very first task of the outside counsel’s engagement. … Outside counsel will then report his findings and conclusions to the full committee, which will then determine whether the matter should proceed.”

As Martin’s year-end deadline approached, the committee announced Dec. 16 that it would extend his contract into 2012, again positioning the resolution of the Waters probe as the most significant announcement the committee might make in the upcoming year.

“They’re back like a dog with a bone on Waters,” said Ken Gross, an attorney at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. “I think that while there are not many [matters under investigation], the ones that are pending are moving through the system in a substantial way. There may not be breadth, but there is depth.”

Martin, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, has until July 31 to complete his work and is authorized to bill the committee up to $500,000 in addition to the $300,000 he billed last year. He will first decide whether former committee staffers improperly provided evidence to the Members who were poised to hear the Waters case before it was postponed. Martin will then recommend whether the committee can continue building its case that Waters and her staff intervened with federal regulators on behalf of a community bank in which her husband had a financial stake. Those familiar with the investigation expect some sort of announcement well before the July deadline.

Sources with knowledge of the committee’s work have also indicated that its investigation into whether Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) forced her staffers to perform campaign duties is well under way. The committee announced Nov. 4 that it had established an investigative subcommittee headed by Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), along with Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

The committee also still has a panel looking into former Rep. Eric Massa’s alleged sexual misconduct, specifically how complaints about him were handled before the New York Democrat resigned his seat.

There are also three Members referred by the Office of Congressional Ethics for further consideration that the committee has not cleared but has thus far declined to formally investigate. The independent office recommended that the committee consider matters involving Democratic Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) and Alcee Hastings (Fla.), which triggered a time window within which the committee had to either reach a decision or release the OCE’s findings. The reports on all three lawmakers are now available to the public, and the committee’s review of the matters has entered an open-ended preliminary review phase known as a Rule 18(a) investigation, a route the committee has opted to choose increasingly as of late.

“The procedural mechanism devised for the Office of Congressional Ethics was designed as a catalyst to get the Ethics Committee to act in a timely fashion, but it has not worked,” Gross said. In a Rule 18(a) investigation “you have a cloud over your head, and anytime you run for office your opponent can say, ‘Well, they’re under investigation still’ — these clouds have implications.”

The committee is also expected to make an announcement regarding an OCE referral of a matter concerning Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) on Feb. 6.

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