WASHINGTON – The top Democrat on the House ethics committee, Alan Mollohan, will leave the panel — at least temporarily — while he defends his own financial conduct, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday.
Mollohan's decision comes in an election year when his party is accusing majority Republicans of allowing a "culture of corruption" in Congress.
Mollohan, of West Virginia, will be replaced by Rep. Howard Berman of California, a former ranking Democrat on the panel. Mollohan has denied any wrongdoing.
The only evenly divided panel in the House, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has been divided along partisan lines for the past 16 months and unable to launch any major new investigations. If Mollohan had stayed while under his own ethics cloud, the chances for the stalemate to end would have been almost impossible.
The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that Mollohan steered millions of dollars to nonprofit groups in his district — with much of the money going to organizations run by people who contribute to the lawmaker's campaigns.
Also, a conservative group filed a complaint with federal prosecutors this year questioning whether Mollohan correctly reported his assets on financial disclosure forms.
While Mollohan's troubles threaten to become a major campaign problem for Democrats, Pelosi, of California, said in a statement that Mollohan decided on his own to step down and that she accepted his decision.
"The allegations against Congressman Mollohan originate from the National Legal and Policy Center, which engages in highly partisan attacks on Democrats," Pelosi said.
"The attacks are an attempt to deflect attention from the long list of Republican criminal investigations, indictments, plea agreements and resignations which have resulted from the reported long-term and extensive criminal enterprise run out of House Republican leadership offices," she said.
Using a phrase that has become a Democratic refrain, Pelosi said, "The Republican culture of corruption has been ignored by the ethics committee for a year and a half following the decision of the Republican leadership to fire their own chairman and committee members for doing their job."
While Mollohan and committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., had 16 months of friction, Berman had a good working relationship with former ethics chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo.
Hefley sought to have his term as chairman extended at the start of 2005, but he and two other Republicans were forced off the 10-member committee after having voted to admonish then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Since the beginning of last year, the two leaders fought over internal rules and staffing, and in a recent meeting discussed — but were unable to agree — on launching any new investigations.