WASHINGTON – The House ethics committee is at a critical crossroads, and the path it takes in the Mark Foley investigation could save its reputation or be its undoing.
Success is a high benchmark for a panel that over the last several years has been called ineffectual, partisan and even worthless, political observers are saying.
"They have to produce on this one," said political science professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "If they don't do a complete investigation with appropriate actions, every member of the committee will be criticized. They would all like to avoid that."
American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein calls the investigation into GOP handling of former Republican Rep. Mark Foley's correspondences with former pages a "do-or-die time" for the ethics panel, officially known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
"This is really the last-ditch effort, that you can do this, with the committee, if you have the will and the leadership, and keep this [committee] from uselessness or just petering out," Ornstein said.
On Oct. 5, the ethics committee, comprised of five Democrats and five Republicans, held a press conference to announce they would be vigorously investigating the Foley scandal, particularly into whether members of the House – including Speaker Dennis Hastert — knew of Foley's lurid electronic messages and other contacts with teenage pages before the news broke in late September.
The press conference followed an emergency meeting of the panel in which they authorized dozens of subpoenas for House members and staff if need be. Since then, the panel has spoken with a dozen different members and aides.
Hastert appeared before the committee on Tuesday. Other top figures to have given testimony are House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio; Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, the GOP's top campaign strategist; and Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., who received the initial complaint from the parents of a 16-year-old whom Foley had contacted.
"The American people, and especially the parents of all current and former pages, are entitled to know how this situation was handled, and we are determined to answer their questions," Hastings said at the press conference. "We pledge to you that our investigation will go wherever the evidence leads us."
But the panel's recent past leaves many doubting that the committee's work will result in any real enforcement beyond some tame recommendations for protecting pages or a soft slap on the wrist for those who may have mishandled earlier allegations of Foley's transgressions.
"They've never really been, in practice or in perception, an effective mechanism to police the House," said former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who called the committee "the fox in charge of the henhouse."
"Normally, they are seen as really a committee that doesn't do anything unless it has to," Barr said. "It makes for good press, but I would be surprised when the dust settles if much at all happens."
Others have more specific doubts about the current make-up of the committee. In February 2005, a few months after the committee admonished then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Hastert pushed out former committee chairman Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., as well as two other Republican members, Reps. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, and two staff aides.
Critics say Hastert replaced those Republicans on the committee with members more friendly to him and DeLay, including Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas, Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania.
Many called the replacements payback for the admonishments against DeLay, who was ultimately forced out of office because of ongoing ethics complaints and a criminal investigation back home in Texas.
The ethics committee admonished DeLay for holding a fundraiser for an energy company that was seeking legislation before Congress and for using his influence with the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene in a dispute between Democrats and Republicans in the Texas state Legislature.
"[It] infuriated me," Hefley said of the membership turnover.
Hefley told FOXNews.com that his tenure on the committee was coming to an end, but the GOP members who were replaced were not only new, but very capable.
"They were good thinkers and a good asset to the committee," he said.
A New Era
Melanie Sloan, director of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said her group passed along Foley-page e-mail correspondences it had acquired to the FBI in July but never received a response. She said she does not expect much from the committee and believes Hastings' appointment as chairman — he was already on the committee — was made to avoid any serious future investigations into House leaders.
"That's why Doc Hastings got that job," Sloan said. "That's just the while point of Hastings. There is no way Hastings is going to find that Hastert did anything wrong. I'd put money on it."
Others appear willing to give the bipartisan panel the benefit of the doubt. LaTourette, who says he harbors no ill-will from the so-called purging, expressed confidence in the committee's ability to police its own.
"There is a lot that takes place in the committee that doesn't get reported," he said in an interview.
The committee cannot talk publicly about open investigations, but LaTourette said much of their time is spent clarifying ethics questions for members.
"They issue a lot of opinions that don't see the light of day," he said.
On the Foley affair, LaTourette said he believes panel members "will do a good job and I think they will do it effectively," adding that when he was on the committee, "I found everybody to drop the partisanship at the door and proceed."
Ornstein said Hastings "did not start on sure footing" and called Hastert's move to purge the committee and subsequently change ethics committee rules to protect DeLay "outrageous abuses of power." But, he said the committee is looking forward now, not back.
"[Hastings] is a smart guy who understands full well what is going on, even if [Hastert's] reputation is on the line," Ornstein said.
Inside or Outside Counsel?
Although reports have indicated that in the last several months the committee has opened probes into Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and William Jefferson, D-La., and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, chief counsel William O'Reilly did not return phone calls to confirm whether the committee is even working on those cases anymore.
O'Reilly was hired last winter after Hefley and the other two Republican members were relieved of their committee posts. Even those who say the committee's motivations are in the right place now suggest an outside, independent counsel may have been more appropriate for the Foley job. The committee resisted that proposal, preferring to stick with O'Reilly.
"My concern is the public perception of this," said Hefley, adding he nonetheless believes the committee is out to do a thorough job. Still, he said, "It might be a good idea to have an outside entity … maybe some former congressman beyond reproach."
O'Reilly came to the ethics committee as a partner and corporate attorney with the D.C.-based law firm, Jones Day.
"Bill does not come across as someone with an edge or an agenda," said former Jones Day colleague Phillip Proger. "You don't feel that he has already made up his mind."
But John Fornier, a political analyst with AEI, said perception is everything in the Foley case. O'Reilly may not be able to overcome concerns about the committee's objectivity and independence.
"I think they would have had more credibility if they had" gone with outside counsel, Fornier said. "It's not a criticism of the particular staff there … but the perception would have been better."
Others note that O'Reilly's appointment was the result of a protracted, bipartisan process that should lend credence to the counsel's performance. LaTourette said his experience with the staff has always been one of professionalism and doesn't doubt the in-house counsel can do the job.
"There were professional. They were not Republican or Democrat," he said. "I don't know this guy [O'Reilly], but I'm sure he'll do the same."
Sabato said the suggestion that only an outside counsel will do "doesn't fly in this case."
"This is simply too public a case — they either do the right thing or they receive a torrent of criticism. I wouldn't want to be a member of the committee under those circumstances," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.