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Senate Ethics Committee Could Get Real Busy, Real Soon

Inquiries of Franken, Menendez and maybe Roy Moore loom

Then-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., at a hearing in 2017 before he stepped down later that month amid sexual misconduct allegations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Then-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., at a hearing in 2017 before he stepped down later that month amid sexual misconduct allegations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Ethics Committee may soon become one of the most active panels in the chamber.

It is all but assured the committee will investigate allegations that Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken groped and kissed a Los Angeles news anchor during a 2006 USO tour. (Franken was not a U.S. senator at the time.) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Franken himself have all called for the panel to take up the case.

Watch: Franken Previously Spoke on Floor About Sexual Harassment Protections

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A decision by a New Jersey judge Thursday to call a mistrial in the case against Sen. Robert Menendez could also put the New Jersey Democrat in the crosshairs of an ethics investigation. Shortly after the mistrial was declared in Newark, McConnell put out a statement saying the Ethics panel needs to look into Menendez, too. 

“Senator Menendez was indicted on numerous federal felonies,” McConnell said. “He is one of only twelve U.S. Senators to have been indicted in our history. His trial shed light on serious accusations of violating the public’s trust as an elected official, as well as potential violations of the Senate’s Code of Conduct.”

“Because of the seriousness of these charges, I am calling on the Senate Ethics committee to immediately investigate Senator Menendez’s actions which led to his indictment,” the statement continued. 

The members of the Senate Ethics Committee, led by Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia, said Thursday that they would be resuming work in relation to alleged corruption by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

“In 2012, the Committee initiated a preliminary inquiry into alleged misconduct by Senator Robert Menendez. In early 2013, consistent with its precedent and in consideration of the Department of Justice’s criminal investigation, the Committee deferred its inquiry. At this time, the Committee intends to resume its process,” the committee members said in a statement.

The committee could have some time on the Menendez case, however, if the federal government decides to retry it.

And depending on the outcome in the Alabama special election to fill Sen. Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat, GOP candidate Roy Moore — if he wins — could immediately face an inquiry from the Ethics panel.

“It is an extraordinary conjunction of matters here,” said Robert Walker, an of counsel at Wiley Rein and former chief counsel and staff director at the Senate Ethics panel. “The committee has flexible rules. They have a flexible approach to staffing and they have a very good core in place now such that they will be able to handle the logistics.”

The panel typically does not publicly announce preliminary investigations, but legal experts say it is warranted in high-profile cases, such as with Menendez and Franken.

For staffers on the Ethics Committee, the heightened attention may involve dusting off a few cobwebs.

The panel has not conducted a major public investigation since 2011. That year, the committee appointed a special counsel to investigate accusations against Sen. John Ensign. The Nevada Republican had an affair with a campaign aide who was married to a top staffer, leading to other allegations of improper use of his position.

Since then, the committee has announced other investigations, like a 2012 preliminary inquiry into improper conduct by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn — which ended in a letter of admonition.

But many have not risen beyond an initial look. In 2016, for example, only five of the 63 alleged violations the panel received underwent a preliminary inquiry and none resulted in disciplinary action.

The confluence of potentially three major cases would be a first in the panel’s history. To deal with the added pressure, the committee can increase its staff as necessary, or appoint a special counsel who would also have certain staffing privileges.

Walker also had high praise for current staff director and chief counsel Deborah Mayer.

“They have a highly professional staff led by a very experienced former federal prosector and military prosecutor,” he said. “If anybody can marshall the troops, I suspect she can.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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