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Trey Radel’s Resignation Expected to End Ethics Investigation

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When embattled Florida Rep. Trey Radel ends his tenure in Congress at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the House Ethics Committee is also expected to end its investigation into the Republican freshman’s arrest for cocaine possession.

That’s just the way it goes: The bipartisan panel of House lawmakers is vested with the task of policing its own and when a member leaves office, he or she is no longer a peer to be policed — even if an investigation was already in the works.

But that isn’t stopping one of Washington, D.C.’s loudest critics of the House’s ethics process from preempting the committee’s closure of the case with calls to see the probe all the way through.

“Rep. Radel’s resignation is welcome, though overdue. The timing, however, is certainly suspicious. Why now?” asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a statement Monday. “It seems possible his resignation is intended to stymie the ethics investigation that might have elicited damaging information about other members of Congress and congressional staff.”

Technically speaking, if the Ethics Committee found over the course of its investigation that other, still-sitting members of Congress were implicated in Radel’s cocaine use, the panel might be inclined to proceed.

“As CREW asked before, who introduced the first-term lawmaker — who lived in Washington less than 10 months — to his drug dealer? Further, we know Rep. Radel shared his cocaine with others. Who, exactly?” Sloan continued. “Given his short tenure in D.C., Rep. Radel most likely spent his free time with other members of Congress and Hill staff.

“The congressman’s resignation should in no way derail the ethics investigation stemming from this incident,” Sloan said.

Though the Capitol Hill community might not have been expecting Radel to announce his resignation on Monday, the news was not terribly surprising. In addition to calls from the Florida GOP establishment for him to step down and a slowly-building line-up of primary challengers, Radel has kept a very low profile in the few weeks he’s been back in office following his leave of absence to obtain treatment for addiction issues and alcoholism in Florida.

All of which prompted many of his colleagues to quietly wonder whether he would finally realize that a return to normalcy would not be easily attained, and Radel conceded as much in his resignation letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

“Regardless of some personal struggles in 2013, this year has already been tremendously positive as I focus on my health, family and faith. Unfortunately, some of my struggles had serious consequences,” Radel wrote to Boehner in a letter dated Monday. “While I have dealt with those issues on a personal level, it is my belief that professionally I cannot fully and effectively serve as a United States Representative to the place I love and call home, Southwest Florida.”

In making a final determination on how to proceed, the House Ethics Committee has some precedent on which to fall back.

The last member of Congress to resign amidst an ethics investigation was Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., who is currently serving up to 30 months in jail. He stepped down in November 2012 and pleaded guilty to stealing more than $750,000 from his campaign coffers to purchase, among other things, a $43,000 Rolex watch, more than $28,000 worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, more than $10,000 in Bruce Lee memorabilia and more than $5,000 in fur coats and capes.

At that time, the House Ethics Committee didn’t release a statement to announce that the matter was being dissolved, but mentioned in its year-end activity report that it had dropped the investigation to coincide with Jackson’s official departure from the House.

The last time the Ethics Committee decided to release some of the findings of an investigation that was ongoing at the time of its subject’s resignation was when the committee delved into the misconduct of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who stepped down in 2006 amidst revelations that he’d been sending sexually explicit emails and instant messages to male House pages.

In the case of the Radel investigation, the biggest hint as to what the Ethics Committee might do next can be found in its first and only public statement on the matter.

In that Dec. 16, 2013 statement, Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., divulged that they were pursuing a line of inquiry within a specific realm of jurisdiction: “To determine whether [Radel] violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct in the performance of his duties or the discharge of his responsibilities, with respect to conduct forming the basis for criminal charges of possession of Cocaine in the District of Columbia, to which Representative Radel pled guilty on November 20, 2013.”

Had the committee wanted to go further in exploring whether Radel’s cocaine use extended to other members of the House, it could have broadened its jurisdiction for launching an investigation. In 1982, for instance, the panel hired a special counsel to investigate “alleged improper or illegal sexual conduct, alleged illicit use or distribution of drugs and alleged preferential treatment of house employees by members, officers or employees of the House.”

But in Radel’s case, it didn’t.

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