House ethics panel's standoff ends

House ethics panel's standoff ends
Will it have teeth? Experts unsure as Democrats hope to pound GOP

By Sam Singer
Washington Bureau

July 23, 2005

WASHINGTON -- After months of partisan bickering, the House ethics committee is up and running, meaning a host of lawmakers could find themselves under investigation and Democrats could find ammunition for their denunciations of a Republican "culture of corruption," which they are making a central theme of the 2006 congressional elections.

But just what role the reactivated ethics committee will play in Capitol Hill's hot-blooded political climate remains to be seen. Some say the panel will be toothless, hamstrung by rules designed to protect lawmakers; others foresee a return to the tit-for-tat ethical wrangling of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"This could easily turn out to be another era defined by the criminalization of policy differences," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "Ethics issues tend to be used as a club in larger political warfare."

Democrats are clamoring for official investigations into the financial activities of a number of House Republicans, most notably Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). For their part, Republicans have assumed a defensive posture, threatening retaliation for complaints filed by the opposition.

Party in control often hit

The party in control often finds itself facing more ethics complaints, partly because powerful politicians may have more opportunities for graft and partly because they make more inviting targets. The Democrats faced a similar raft of complaints before they lost control of the House in 1994.

Still, both parties are treading cautiously, aware of the perils of an escalating ethics dispute to their parties and to Congress' dismal public standing.

The ethics committee--formally the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct--has always been a venue for explosive allegations. It played a role in the downfall of such stars as former House Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Because of the sensitivity of its subject matter, it is equally split between Republicans and Democrats, unlike other committees, which are weighted toward the party in control.

The panel's paralysis began in January when Republicans imposed rule changes, including letting House leaders keep their positions even if they are indicted. That prompted a Democratic boycott of the committee and set off a political furor.

After Republicans backed down, another standoff kept the committee out of service for two more months when the committee chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), sought to install a staff director over the objections of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the committee's top Democrat. The committee has held one hearing in half a year. It broke down in bickering.

Leadership change

Meanwhile, another tempest erupted at the beginning of the year when House Republican leaders replaced former chairman Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who was known for his independence, with Hastings, who is considered a party loyalist.

Now, after an agreement between Hastings and Mollohan, the committee is searching for non-partisan investigative staffers. By the time it is properly staffed--around Labor Day, Mollohan predicts--the committee will have a year to tackle its docket before the 2006 congressional elections.

Although no official schedule has been set, the committee will almost certainly look at the case of DeLay, who has been accused of traveling abroad at lobbyists' expense. DeLay's office said the majority leader, who was chastised by the ethics committee three times last year, is eager to present his side of the story.

Democrats have been quick to spotlight Republican members who are facing ethics scrutiny, using everything short of skywriting to alert local voters of their representatives' alleged impropriety.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose goal is to elect more Democrats to the House, has purchased print and radio ads in DeLay's district, along with those of five other House Republicans.

Among those on this Democratic committee hit list are Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif).

Cunningham faces questions surrounding his financial dealings with a defense contractor. He recently announced he would not seek another term.

Democrats have made little secret of their plan to portray Republicans as entrenched and corrupt in their long-shot campaign to retake the House in 2006.

When Cunningham announced he would not seek re-election, the Democratic Party issued a statement calling him the "first GOP victim of the culture of corruption." In Minnesota, the Democrats have recruited FBI whistle-blower Colleen Rowley to challenge Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), saying her campaign will focus on "ethics in government and effective national security."

"The Democrats have made it clear they're going to make this a big issue," said Hefley, the Republican former committee chairman. "Unfortunately, the way the Republicans handled it last winter played right into the Democrats' hands. It looked like we were playing fast and loose with the rules, and we looked real bad."

If Democrats are to profit politically, experts say the ethics investigations will need a national stage.

A steady stream of headlines will be necessary to draw voters' attention, said Washington political analyst Charlie Cook. If that does happen, he added, it could be very effective.

Message getting across

"When they see a drumbeat of pieces about corruption, a pattern of behavior is created that's really, really dangerous," Cook said.

The American Enterprise Institute's Ornstein agreed: "That macro message is starting to emerge."

But Republicans argue that plenty of Democrats are guilty of ethical violations.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), for example, is under scrutiny for making public the contents of an illegally taped phone conversation in 1997. And should a true ethics war erupt, every Democrat could face scrutiny for possible violations.

So, fearing retaliation, Democrats have been reluctant to file complaints.

It is that mentality of "mutually assured destruction" that has Melanie Sloan skeptical that the ethics committee will be very aggressive. Sloan is executive director of the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,

"Everybody is worried about starting an ethics war," she said. "Don't expect them to do anything."



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Potential targets of the ethics committee

Watchdog groups and others are calling on the House ethics committee to investigate several members for alleged ethics violations.

Some examples:


In Congress since 1985

Allegedly participated in a scheme to funnel money from corporations to Texas state campaigns in 2002.

Last year, a grand jury indicted three DeLay aides and several corporations in connection with the operation. DeLay also is accused of taking an overseas trip in 2000 paid for by lobbyists, who are barred by law from directly paying for such travel.


In Congress since 1991

Was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury seeking information about the sale of his house to a defense contractor who then sold the property at a $700,000 loss. Cunningham, who said recently he would not seek re-election, also has been living rent-free on a yacht owned by the contractor.


In Congress since 1991

Her family has earned more than $1 million over the last eight years through business dealings with companies and issue organizations Waters has helped, according to news reports.

BOB NEY (R-Ohio)

In Congress since 1995

Allegedly received three checks totaling $32,000 and financing for a 2002 golf trip from the Tigua Indian Tribe in Texas after he agreed to support an amendment to reopen a tribal casino.

Sources: Tribune and news reports

Chicago Tribune

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

Feds Audit MZM Contract

North County Times

Jul. 21--Federal officials said Wednesday that the Defense Contract Audit Agency has completed a review of a multimillion-dollar translation-services contract held by MZM Inc., a company whose relations with U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, are the target of a grand jury investigation.

The audit was requested last year by the Defense Contract Management Agency, said Ronald Savageau, a manager with the audit agency. The audit results will not be released until the agency has reviewed the report, he added.

Auditors reviewed a contract for "several million dollars" that MZM holds to provide overseas translation services to the U.S. Army, Savageau said.

"We were asked to look at the contract by the administrative contract officer to see if the billing made sense to us," Savageau said.

MZM officials did not return phone calls Wednesday.

News of the audit comes on the heels of an announcement in late June that the Pentagon had suspended a five-year, $250 million agreement with MZM through which the company has received more than $160 million in defense contracts in the last few years.

A separate audit on that deal conducted by the Defense Department's inspector general's office led the department to cancel the agreement to comply with new contracting rules, Pentagon officials said.

Pentagon officials have said the cancellation was unrelated to the investigation of Cunningham and MZM.

The results of the inspector general's audit also have yet to be released.