House Dems Squirm under Ethics Probe, Push for Looser Standards

July 1, 2009

House Dems Squirm under Ethics Probe, Push for Looser Standards
‘Most Ethical Congress in History’ a Little Too Ethical for Dems Under Investigation

Speaker Pelosi Vowed that Democrats Would Lead the “Most Honest, Most Open, and Most Ethical Congress in History”

“Our goal is to restore accountability, honesty and openness at all levels of government. To do so, we will create and enforce rules that demand the highest ethics from every public servant, sever unethical ties between lawmakers and lobbyists, and establish clear standards that prevent the trading of official business for gifts,” (Nancy Pelosi’s “A New Direction for America, Page 21).

Democrat Caucus Members Under Investigation Move to Loosen Ethics Rules

An investigation into a trip taken by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is triggering a backlash against the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s signature ethics proposal.

CBC members, frustrated at what they perceive as an accusation by a conservative group that’s been blown out of proportion, last week formed a working group to look at taking on the 2006 resolution that created the OCE.

“We might need to revisit that law,” a source said.

While the dealings of both the OCE and the House ethics committee are confidential, the OCE appears to have referred allegations about a trip to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten to the full House ethics committee, which has begun investigating.

The independent ethics office was a keystone of Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) promise to “drain the swamp” when Democrats took over Congress in the wake of a series of Republican scandals, such as GOP members dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. There was widespread criticism that the ethics committee had been ineffective at policing members’ conduct.

The OCE, which has a review board of former members, can accept formal complaints from outside groups and private citizens and can refer those complaints to the House ethics committee.

It has never been popular with the CBC, whose members were among the most outspoken opponents of Pelosi’s proposal. Critics feared that partisan groups could use the office to launch politically motivated ethics investigations. Now, some CBC members think that’s just what’s happened.

They think allegations surrounding the Caribbean trip pale in comparison to other ethics situations, such as the investigation into connections between lawmakers and the PMA Group, a lobbying firm. The ethics committee recently acknowledged that it is investigating those connections, but there is also a federal criminal probe. They note that Pelosi sought to block votes in the House demanding an ethics investigation into PMA, which had close ties to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a close Pelosi ally.

“In an environment where there’s allegations of clear criminality, investigating a trip to a Caribbean island is a bit odd,” said an aide to a CBC lawmaker. “What’s the charge, that they spent too much time at the pool? That’s ridiculous.” (Mike Soraghan, “Black caucus criticizes ethics probe of trip to the Caribbean,” The Hill, 6/24/09)

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