Watchdogs say House muzzling staffers North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News


Two congressional watchdog groups are accusing House leaders of trying to minimize the ethics scandals plaguing Washington Republicans by muzzling staffers who worked for former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned after admitting he took millions in bribes.

When the North County Times requested interviews last week with two of Cunningham's former staffers, the workers said they were under orders from the House clerk's office not to speak to reporters.

"I am not allowed to talk to the press; because of the clerk, I can't give interviews," Cunningham's former chief of staff Harmony Allen said last week when questioned about how the scandal has affected the lives of the fallen congressman's former staff members.

A House policy prohibits staff members in a vacated office from speaking with the press without approval from the clerk, said Jon Brandt, a spokesman for the Committee on House Administration. He later e-mailed a copy of that policy to the North County Times.

Brandt said that because interviews with former Cunningham staffers could touch on areas relating to the business of the 50th Congressional District office at the time it was under Cunningham's command, "the decision has been made that no" interviews will be allowed, he said.

Brandt said the rule has existed since before Republicans become the majority in the House in 1995.

"We are not trying to be (uncooperative), it's just standard operating procedure," Brandt said.

He said that once a replacement takes office in the 50th District, staffers would be free to speak to the press.

A spokesman for Washington-based congressional watchdog group Public Citizen said he believed House Republican leaders were inappropriately restricting access to the press and thus cheating the public of learning more about Cunningham's conduct in office.

"This is a self-serving political gag order and designed to protect the image of the House and specifically Republican members," said Craig Holman of the group, described as a nonprofit organization that "advocates" for consumers.

After Cunningham resigned from office late last year and pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery and tax evasion, most of his staff members continued to work at the 50th District office, which represents a stretch of North County from Escondido to Del Mar.

But once Cunningham, a Vietnam War ace, stepped down, the House of Representatives' office of the clerk took over the management of his office. Former Cunningham staffers may continue to work in that office until a temporary replacement is elected this spring to serve out the remainder of the term, which is up in December.

Brandt said that those who ignore orders not to speak with the press would have to face the consequences.

"If they violate (the) policy, that is their decision and they will have to answer to the clerk's office," Brandt said.

Holman said that before Cunningham's guilty pleas it clearly was appropriate to prevent staffers from speaking with the press on the ground that the criminal investigation might be jeopardized.

But once Cunningham entered guilty pleas, everything changed, Holman said.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for another Washington watchdog group echoed Holman's statements.

"By denying transparency, which is a purported goal of this Congress, through restricted access to (former U.S.) Rep. Cunningham's staff, the committee has eliminated any chance for insight into the inner workings of Cunningham's office of corruption," said Naomi Steiner, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that uses the legal system to go after politicians they label as corrupt. The group is led by a former federal prosecutor who worked for several Democratic House members prior to joining the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C.


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