The House Ethics Committee awakens today from a seven-month hibernation, and Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar) is expected to be at the top of its list of new investigative targets.
Legislators from both parties promised this week to let the panel get back to work after a lengthy hiatus triggered in February by the messy ethics case of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But it may reconvene without acting on the recommendations of a task force whose work was the ostensible reason for imposing--and repeatedly extending--the moratorium on the committee.
"I'd much rather we be doing this with those reforms in place but this process has to go forward either under the existing procedures or the new ones," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), the committee's ranking minority member. "There's no justification any more for keeping the moratorium. It freezes the ethics process at a time that I think it's very important for us to show the public that this House can police itself."
The first order of business is appointing 10 more members--five from each party--to join Berman and committee Chairman James V. Hansen (R-Utah) on the panel. Republicans are scheduled to meet this afternoon to discuss nominations and to decide what to do with the task force recommendations.
With hearings on campaign fund-raising improprieties underway and focused on the White House, Democrats on Capitol Hill are particularly eager to revive the Ethics Committee. It has pending complaints against Gingrich and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and is likely to pursue disciplinary action against Kim, who pleaded guilty in July to federal misdemeanor charges related to illegal campaign donations.
Kim, who represents a solidly GOP district that includes swaths of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, pledged in his plea agreement to cooperate with any further investigations--including one by his House colleagues. But he is not happy about it.
"It seems kind of like they're trying to kick a man when he's down," said Kim spokesman P.J. O'Neil. "The U.S. attorney's office has investigated this for five years. . . . I don't think there's a whole lot more out there. I don't think there's anything more out there. I don't know what more the Ethics Committee, or other members of Congress who would file complaints against Mr. Kim, would be trying to get."
But some legislators and watchdog groups say that they cannot sit by and do nothing while a member who admitted criminal wrongdoing enjoys the privileges of the House. It is unclear who might file a complaint, but Republicans and Democrats agree that a Kim inquiry is all but certain.
Kim and his wife, who also pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in connection with the campaign violations, face up to six months in prison and $635,000 in fines when they are sentenced Oct. 23. His campaign committee faces $2.5 million in fines.
"There are punitive measures the House can take that might not happen to him otherwise," said one Capitol Hill staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's a matter of an institution wanting to protect itself against people who've committed crimes."
Meredith McGehee, legislative director for Common Cause, said Kim is practically a poster boy for the need to reconvene the ethics panel.
"Here's a guy who's saying he's going to run for reelection, who's apparently showing very little qualms about what he did, very little regret, who got off on a deal to get misdemeanors, and there's going to be no sanction about that in the institution?" McGehee said. "I find that pretty incredible and I think they do, too."
Kim pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors--accepting illegal donations of $50,000 from a Taiwanese national, $12,000 from a New York corporation and $83,000 in services from his own company, JayKim Engineers. He has downplayed the importance of the violations and attributed them to his misunderstanding of campaign law.
The House ethics panel, officially called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, went dormant in February when leaders of both parties called a 65-day halt to new complaints so that a dozen-member task force could brainstorm on ways to remove politics from the investigative process.
That moratorium was extended and a 100-page booklet with 29 suggested changes was released in June. Among the key recommendations:
* Create a 20-member pool to serve on investigative subcommittees.
* Expand the power of the minority party on the panel and hire a nonpartisan staff.
* Increase confidentiality.
* Set time limits--14 calendar days or five legislative session days--for initial investigations.
* Narrow the opportunities for non-House members to file complaints.
Legislators extended the committee's hibernation until midnight tonight, saying they needed more time to review the reforms.
One upside to the hiatus, Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said, is that "we've had a lot less noise on the floor."
Although many House members have wanted the panel reconvened, few seem eager to be involved in judging other members' behavior. As House leaders decide on appointments, "I know a lot of my colleagues aren't answering their telephones," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), co-chairman of the task force.
Sources in both parties said that action on the task force report will probably wait until next week and perhaps be dropped altogether.
"Whatever they're doing, they should get going," McGehee said. "Did the old process stink? Absolutely. Are there some changes they could make that would improve it? Yes. There are some small changes they've proposed. But the truth is, it ain't going to change the real problem: [The committee] is a victim of partisanship. And, more importantly, it's an old boys' club. It's a mutual protection society."
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.