Updated, 6:34 p.m. | Republican leaders who had been confident six months before the midterms are now left evaluating how to handle the political fallout over Rep. Michael G. Grimm, the latest sitting member of Congress to say he’ll stick it out in office and run for re-election while battling a federal indictment.
Though House Republicans have had to deal with their share of low-grade scandals in the three and a half years since they reclaimed the majority, this will mark the first time they have had to consider whether, or how, they’ll discipline one of their own who’s facing more damning allegations than just kissing a staffer or getting busted for cocaine.
Grimm, a New York Republican, took matters into his own hands Monday night, sending a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, requesting he be removed from the House Financial Services Committee “in light of recent events.”
“Upon a successful resolution of pending legal matters, my intention is to resume said position as an active member of the committee,” Grimm wrote. It is the only panel on which he serves.
The congressman was charged Monday with 20 counts of illegal activity relating to the health food restaurant he owned and operated between 2006 and 2010, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and impede the IRS. Grimm was also charged with filing false tax returns, knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants and lying under oath.
Grimm, who up to this point was best known for threatening to throw a reporter over a balcony inside the Capitol complex, maintains his innocence.
“I’m a moral man, a man of integrity,” the former FBI undercover agent and U.S. Marine told reporters at a Monday afternoon news conference outside a Brooklyn courthouse, calling the probe a “political witch hunt” and vowing to keep up his bid for a third term.
But back in Washington, as lawmakers returned from a two-week recess, there was little from Boehner and his top lieutenants. The speaker’s office sent out the Grimm letter about the committee with a brief comment from Boehner spokesman Michael Steel: “The Speaker believes Rep. Grimm’s decision is appropriate under the circumstances.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters earlier Monday that he would not be issuing a statement until after he had spoken with Grimm.
And no one seemed willing to go on record standing behind or disavowing their colleague.
GOP leadership aides said members were still filtering back into town, with the only pressing obligation a series of votes at 6:30 p.m. It was unlikely, they suggested, that leaders would be prepared to address the matter before their weekly Tuesday morning news conference.
“It happened this morning,” said Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, emerging from a Monday afternoon leadership meeting that occurs at the start of every congressional workweek, political scandals aside. “Everybody just flew in town this afternoon. I’m sure you guys can wait for a few minutes for people to determine when they get together how they’re going to handle this.”
What will Boehner do? It’s not the first time he’s been presented with possible lawbreakers in his ranks. As the minority leader in 2008, Boehner pressured then-Rep. Rick Renzi to resign amid an indictment on charges that he sought to compel the federal government to purchase land from his business partner. Renzi refused to step aside, and Boehner stripped him of his committee assignments. The Arizona Republican ultimately caved to pressure and declined to run for re-election. (He was sentenced last year to three years in prison but is currently out on bail, pending his appeal of the corruption charges against him.)
Boehner has always had a “zero-tolerance” policy for behavior that he felt lowered the credibility threshold of the institution, often going so far as to take House floor time to chide members who aren’t wearing proper attire for the Speaker’s Lobby.
In 2010, in the waning days of the Democrats’ majority, he was relentless about New York Democrat Charles B. Rangel’s censure on the chamber floor for House ethics violations — a clear sign to him that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had failed in her pledge to “drain the swamp” of corruption in the capital.
Pelosi’s “drain the swamp” pledge helped her party wrest power from the GOP in the 2006 midterms, as Republicans had faced a series of problems involving Jack Abramoff’s lobbying scandal and influence peddling, among other troubles. Ohio Republican Bob Ney, California Republican Duke Cunningham and former party leader Tom DeLay all resigned under varying circumstances. (Pelosi had her hands full with then-Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La., who won re-election in 2006 even after an FBI raid uncovered a freezer stuffed with cash.)
Boehner will have to weigh his options in the days ahead and think strategically about what move might work best in an election year. Already, the hullabaloo has prompted Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call to change its rating of the Staten Island and Brooklyn-based 11th District from Leans Republican to Leans Democrat. With the minority party already targeting Grimm as vulnerable, the race becomes Democrats’ best opportunity to defeat a Republican incumbent this cycle.
Kelly Kramer, a veteran Washington attorney who was a lead trial counsel in the Renzi case, noted the misconduct allegations right now exclusively focus on Grimm’s health food restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan called Healthalicious.
“This is not about Grimm as a congressman,” Kramer told CQ Roll Call on Monday. “If this is really what this is going to be about then it’s a little bit different. Most of the other historic prosecutions relate to conduct by the members that relate to them being members. This is much more ancillary.
“I don’t think he’s going to face the same kind of pressure necessarily as people who are accused of doing something wrong in office,” he added.
Kramer admitted that if an indictment came out regarding outstanding campaign finance fraud allegations, that could be a different matter entirely. (Grimm’s friend was indicted on April 25 related to those questions.)
Grimm’s fate could also be sealed by whether his attorneys push for a speedy trial in hopes of clearing the lawmaker before Election Day, or whether they request that legal proceedings go forward at a slower, more deliberate pace, stretching past Nov. 4.
Thinking that he would be absolved of allegations he was facing, then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, pushed for and received an expedited trial ahead of Election Day in 2008. It didn’t work out as he’d hoped — he was ultimately found guilty of making improper gifts, a verdict that cost him his seat days later to Democrat Mark Begich. It wasn’t until next year that the Justice Department dropped the charges on findings that there had been prosecutorial malfeasance. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010.
Grimm attorney Elizabeth Kase told CQ Roll Call in an email that no decisions had been made as to whether the defense would seek speedy deliberation.
“This is day one,” she said. “Trial strategy will be thoughtfully developed in due time.”
Correction: April 29, 11:27 a.m.
An earlier version of this post inaccurately reported that former Rep. Rick Renzi was serving a three-year prison sentence for corruption charges. He is currently out on bail, pending an appeal.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.