Ethics Committee at Center of Partisan Storm

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (search) — otherwise known as the Ethics Committee — is inconspicuous, unglamorous and according to members of Congress, not the first pick for committee assignments.

But according to individuals involved in current investigations and outside groups, the panel has been actively probing several charges against members from both sides of the aisle.

After a March press conference by a coalition of groups upset with the committee's inaction, the panel announced it would formally open an investigation into the alleged bribery of Rep. Nick Smith (search), R-Mich., who publicly accused unnamed Republicans of offering him $100,000 for his son’s election campaign in return for his vote in favor of the Medicare Reform Act (search) bill, passed in November.

Smith, who voted against the bill, later changed his story and said no explicit amount of money was offered but his Republican colleagues strong-armed him and suggested they may run a primary challenge to Smith’s son, Brad, who is running to replace his retiring father. GOP leaders flatly denied the charges.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Conyers (search), D-Mich., confirmed in April that the committee is investigating allegations that he illegally used his congressional staff to work on election campaigns, including his wife’s bid for state senate in Michigan — a charge he has denied through his lawyer, Washington attorney Stan Brand.

Brand is also representing Rep. Karen McCarthy (search), D-Mo., in an ongoing case over whether she illegally paid a political consultant who did work for her congressional office with campaign funds.

On the flip side, Rep. Curt Weldon (search), R-Pa., has asked the ethics panel to investigate charges that first surfaced in a March 20 Los Angeles Times article suggesting that Weldon pursued legislation favorable to clients of his daughter’s lobbying firm. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (search), which has attempted to spark myriad government investigations of lawmakers, 99 percent against Republicans, has also asked the Department of Justice to investigate the charges against Weldon.

“The congressman has great respect for (the committee's) activity and jurisdiction,” said Weldon spokesman Michael Conallen, who called the paper's allegations baseless and sent to the panel a 35-page rebuttal because Weldon and his staff did not want to “put their head in the sand."

Despite the full slate of activities, critics contend other allegations are being ignored by the ethics committee, in part, they say, because of an informal truce made in 1997 between both parties not to launch politically-motivated complaints against one another.

“There is a lot of frustration within the Democratic caucus,” said one House Democratic leadership aide who did not want to be named. “There is a groundswell of members who feel that the truce has given the Republican majority the opportunity to break the law.”

“It’s pretty much anarchy,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, who expressed frustration with what she calls inertia in the face of rampant violations. CREW and groups aligned with liberal interests, like Common Cause (search) and Public Citizen (search), held a March 2 press conference to complain that the committee has not pursued a number of high-profile reports of members violating congressional and campaign rules.

“Republicans have been able to abuse their power so completely without fear of repercussion,” Sloan said. “Democrats just don’t have the power to abuse.”

But others deny that the truce even exists and say all it takes is one member to convince someone on the committee to initiate an investigation.

“Certainly there are concerns the committee will get bogged down with complaints from every group with an ax to grind,” said Todd Young of the Southeastern Legal Foundation (search).

Committee leadership and others supporters say the committee is doing its job fine, and is not going to give into any partisan tug-of-war.

“We take our responsibilities very seriously,” said Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and ranking member Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, D-W.Va., in a five-page letter released in March in response to media reports about the committee. They denied any "drop off" in the number of cases pursued by the committee since 1997.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," they said.

The letter detailed the committee’s responsibilities, underscoring that it had signed off on nearly 2,300 financial disclosure statements this session, answered 600 advisory opinion requests from members and the chairman had initiated 18 informal inquiries into alleged member violations.

Still, Democrats have accused the committee of ignoring reports about members like Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (search), is the target of a grand jury investigation in his home state over charges it illegally gave money to Republicans running in Texas state races.

One Republican House aide added that Democrats have been "harping" on the Smith case.

“That one can be potentially problematic,” the aide said.

Committee rules dictate that members cannot talk about formal or informal inquiries publicly — the committee cannot even confirm that open cases even exist. Furthermore, the committee does not need to disclose the conclusions of the chairman’s informal inquiries. Critics say this gives the impression of secrecy, leading to frustration among members.

“You don’t even know if the member you’ve complained about even gets a slap on the wrist,” said Sloan.

Committee rules also prohibit outside groups from requesting that formal complaints be filed against members. That didn't stop Project 21 (search), a black conservative group, which recently asked the committee to look into the relationship between members of the Congressional Black Caucus (search) — all Democrats — and embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search).

Former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., who served in Congress for 20 years, said the ethics committee was never regarded as a heavy hand for enforcement.  “They’re not Sherlock Holmes — they’re at their best laying down the rules and getting people to follow them, rather than sneaking around garbage cans.”

Young said, though, that the committee could use a little more disclosure. “I think a little sunshine on their activities would dampen the enthusiasm for partisan attacks.”