Congress unwilling to clean its own house


    The Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress’ ethics committees are in no hurry to investigate crimes of thier own despite the growing revelations about the
    favors that lobbyist Jack Abramoff won for clients and the largesse he
    arranged for lawmakers.

    Instead, they remain on the sidelines.

    The
    House committee, stymied by partisan disagreements, launched no
    investigations in 2005 even after former House Majority Leader Tom
    DeLay, R-Texas, requested an inquiry into his foreign travel arranged
    by Abramoff.

    The lack of commitment to investigate issues about
    lawmakers’ conduct with Abramoff, his lobbying team and his clients is
    raising anew the question of whether Congress adequately can discipline
    its own.

    “There have always been questions about whether Congress
    can police itself,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington
    University in St. Louis who specializes in ethics. “The situation in
    the House removes all doubt. The House is not policing itself.”

    The
    Associated Press asked the four lawmakers who lead the ethics
    committees whether they would make a commitment to investigate ethical
    wrongdoing if, as expected, the information Abramoff supplies in a plea
    agreement exposes misconduct by a number of members of Congress. Each
    of the four _ two Republicans and two Democrats _ declined, through his
    spokesmen, to do so.

    The House Committee on Standards of Official
    Conduct is headed by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; the top Democrat is
    Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

    The Senate Select Committee
    on Ethics is led by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio; the ranking Democrat
    is Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

    While the committees have an
    equal number of Democrats and Republicans, forging a bipartisanship
    consensus in ethics investigations often has proved difficult.

    After
    the House levied a $300,000 fine against former Speaker Newt Gingrich,
    R-Ga., for ethical violations in 1997 _ payment for part of the cost of
    investigating his conduct _ weary members of both parties declared an
    ethics truce. For several years, there were no major cases for several
    years.

    The House committee revived itself in 2004, admonishing
    DeLay on three separate issues. The House Republican leadership reacted
    by refusing to extend the term of the chairman at that time, Rep. Joel
    Hefley, R-Colo. He had asked to stay on.

    Last year, Hastings and
    Mollohan feuded for months over investigative rules, and then for
    additional months over the composition of the staff. The entire year
    was gone before the leaders finally chose the committee’s top staff
    member; he started work only recently.

    Abramoff pleaded guilty
    this month to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud in Washington and
    to additional charges in Miami. He has agreed to cooperate with
    prosecutors.

    The committees traditionally defer to prosecutors
    and do not interfere with criminal investigations. But they can
    investigate violations of standards of conduct that are separate from
    criminal violations.

    Committee actions can range from a critical
    letter to recommendations of serious punishment by the full House _ all
    the way to expulsion.

    The Abramoff criminal inquiry raises
    numerous issues. Lawmakers, for instance, are prohibited from accepting
    trips from lobbyists.

    One way Abramoff lavished favors on
    lawmakers was through free travel that he arranged through nonprofit
    organizations that got money from the lobbyist’s clients. DeLay has
    said he was unaware that Abramoff may have paid for some of his travel.

    Rep.
    Bob Ney of Ohio, who has been implicated in the Abramoff investigation,
    announced Sunday that he will step aside temporarily as chairman of the
    House Administration Committee with jurisdiction over many of the rules
    governing lobbyists and travel.

    More than four dozen lawmakers _
    from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
    _ sent to federal agencies letters that were favorable to Abramoff
    clients or took official actions in Congress to help them.

    Around
    the same time, those lawmakers received large political donations or
    used Abramoff’s skybox or restaurant for fundraising. Some lawmakers
    didn’t provide reimbursement until years later.

    Ethics watchdog
    groups have written the committees alleging those activities violate
    congressional ethics standards that require lawmakers to avoid even the
    appearance of a conflict of interest.

    Congress’ response to the
    budding scandal so far, especially in the House, has been a flurry of
    proposals to write new laws to control lobbyists’ relations with
    lawmakers. Some experts believe that without an investigation that can
    lead to discipline, ethics violators get a free pass.

    “You have
    to publicly reprimand someone,” said Judy Nadler, the former mayor of
    Santa Clara, Calif., and now a senior fellow at Santa Clara University.
    “If there are no consequences, things will not change. This is drive-by
    ethics.”

    Former Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican who served on
    the Senate ethics committee, said, “The amount of politics that
    intruded into the House committee is discouraging.”

    Rudman said
    the ethics leaders have an obligation to follow up on any potential
    violations of standards of conduct. “It would be impossible not to
    address some of these issues,” said Rudman, who served during the
    Keating Five investigation that suffered through partisanship in the
    Senate panel.

    That investigation had similarities to the Abramoff
    case. It involved donations to five senators from a savings and loan
    operator, who persuaded the lawmakers to intervene with federal
    regulators on his behalf. The timing of the donations and official
    actions was a key issue with both the Keating Five and the Abramoff
    cases.

    Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the
    People & the Press, said the Abramoff case is “likely to raise the
    issue of how well Congress does in keeping track of its own behavior.”

    But he said the public will not really get interested until more lawmakers are publicly named in the criminal investigation.