WASHINGTON – The House ethics committee, fortified by a pile of new money to conduct investigations, has become a player in major bribery probes that could leave some lawmakers facing double trouble: criminal prosecution and punishment by their peers.
The committee on Wednesday announced two full-blown investigations and a separate preliminary inquiry — all of them focused on possible bribery that also is under investigation by the Justice Department.
One ethics investigation could lead to additional lawmakers tied to a convicted influence peddler, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who admitted providing gifts in return for legislative favors.
The more informal preliminary inquiry could ensnare lawmakers in a soap opera-like scandal involving bribery and sex that already has landed a former House member in prison.
As a separate branch of government, Congress can punish its own with a letter of reprimand, a censure in the legislative chamber or — in extreme cases — expulsion. This is in addition to any criminal prosecution.
"If I had any involvement in either one (a Justice Department or ethics investigation), I would not be comfortable, that's for sure," said Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., a former chairman of the ethics committee.
Hefley was chairman when the committee handled the bribery case of former Rep. James Trafficant, D-Ohio, who was expelled from the House in 2002 and then imprisoned.
One potential legal obstacle for the committee could be the Justice Department, which sometimes asks the ethics panel to step aside temporarily to avoid jeopardizing a prosecution.
In the cases announced Wednesday, the committee could need some of the same witnesses and documents that are crucial to the Justice Department investigations.
The witnesses could include Abramoff and his onetime lobbying team of former congressional staff members. Others witnesses could be defense contractors involved in bribing imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Bernadette Sargeant, a former ethics committee lawyer, said that in the Trafficant case, the Justice Department shared key documents. Sargeant added she was "surprised the committee was able to get internal memos generated by another executive branch agency" other than Justice.
Randall Eliason, former chief of the public corruption and fraud unit of the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, said the dual investigations could be a problem for prosecutors.
"It's not good to have witnesses under oath in multiple proceedings," Eliason said. "Inconsistencies can arise. That will be used against you at trial."
Full-blown investigations by four-member subcommittees of lawmakers were ordered for two House members.
One is Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, whose former chief of staff pleaded guilty to helping corrupt the lawmaker on behalf of Abramoff and his lobbying team.
Ney, ironically, is the former chairman of the House Administration Committee and was responsible for the 40 percent budget increase received by the ethics panel to hire more investigative staff. He has denied wrongdoing and pledged his cooperation to the committee and the Justice Department.
The committee also announced an investigation of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. Two businessmen have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson to promote a technology firm's operations in Africa.
The preliminary inquiry, to be conducted by the ethics panels staff, will focus on potential bribery of lawmakers by defense contractors. Cunningham, a California Republican, is serving an eight-year prison sentence but as a former lawmaker is no longer under the committee's jurisdiction.
That case may not end with Cunningham.
They key figure is San Diego businessman Brent Wilkes, described in Cunningham's plea agreement as an unindicted co-conspirator.
Prosecutors allege Wilkes bribed Cunningham to win government contracts for his companies, but he also had ties to other lawmakers, lobbyists and government officials.
Investigators also have contacted two Washington, D.C.-based escort services in an effort to determine whether Wilkes supplied Cunningham — and potentially other lawmakers — with prostitutes, reportedly at the Watergate Hotel and and elsewhere.
Wilkes' attorney, Nancy Luque, said she had no comment.
Cunningham's lawyer, K. Lee Blalack, said if the committee contacts the former lawmaker in prison, and the Justice Department has no objection, "he will cooperate with them as he has with others."
Brian Walsh, spokesman for Ney, said the Ohio lawmaker "pledged full cooperation. He has nothing to hide."