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Troubled Ethics Panel Tackles Scandal

Times Staff Writer

The House Ethics Committee has had little to say as one scandal after another has rocked Capitol Hill since early 2005.

Now, can a panel that has been derided as a symbol of congressional dysfunction take up a tough, politically sensitive case a month before an election and produce results within weeks, as promised?

Skeptics abound.

“We don’t have a lot of confidence in the Ethics Committee,” said James Benton of the public watchdog group Common Cause.

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The committee launched an investigation Thursday into the House GOP leadership’s handling of a scandal involving sexually explicit communications that former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) sent to teenage pages. It has prepared nearly four dozen subpoenas for records and testimony, and its leaders are promising to go wherever the evidence takes them.

But the investigation follows months of attacks on the committee by those who say it failed to aggressively investigate the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and other scandals.

The committee’s last major action -- admonishing then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) -- was two years ago. Afterward, the Ethics Committee chairman was booted from the panel.

“The last time the committee did its job ... it had its head chopped off,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a longtime champion of ethics reform, said Friday, calling it “not exactly a good sign” for the job ahead. He has called for the committee to appoint an outside counsel to investigate.

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While the DeLay case was considered politically sensitive, this one could be tougher. It involves looking into what House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other lawmakers knew about Foley’s activities, when, and how they responded.

The investigation also is being conducted in the heat of a partisan fight for control of Congress. On Friday, New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. called for Hastert to resign as speaker. And Democrats plan to discuss the scandal in their radio address today.

Most of Hastert’s House GOP colleagues appear to be standing by him. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) sent a letter Friday urging fellow Republicans to wait for the results of the investigations. “Then we can judge everyone’s actions for ourselves, based on facts instead of frenzy or ambition,” he wrote.

The investigation comes as a new AP-Ipsos poll, conducted after the sex scandal broke, found that about half of likely voters polled thought that recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress would be very or extremely important to their vote in the November elections.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center, however, found that the scandal had not significantly affected the midterm race. In interviews before the scandal broke, the poll found Democrats were favored over Republicans for Congress, 51% to 38%, among registered voters. That was essentially unchanged in the days after Foley resigned.

The congressional probe also comes as the FBI conducts a separate criminal investigation that could affect the willingness of witnesses to cooperate with the Ethics Committee.

On Friday, the lawyer for a former Hill page from California identified as having traded messages with Foley said his client would be willing to answer questions from the ethics panel and the FBI. “Clearly, he wishes he had never been a House page,” attorney Stephen Jones told CNN. “Nevertheless, his name has been brought into it. He wants to cooperate with the investigation. Whatever he is asked he will testify under oath truthfully to what he knows. It is up to others to know if it is relevant.”

Given the committee’s recent track record, few expect results soon. Hardly anyone expects a report before the November election.

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“One of the problems is that the Ethics Committee has been somewhat dormant for a while,” said Larry Noble, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics issues. “So it’s hard to have a real sense of what it’s capable of doing.”

But Rep. Howard L. Berman of Valley Village, the committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview Friday that since he rejoined the panel in the spring, “there is a lot more going on” within the committee than people realize, but that he couldn’t publicly discuss it. And despite the committee’s paralysis for much of 2005, Berman said, “As slow and as torturous as the process appears to be, the fact is if you look at the last 20 years, a number of careers have been ended by virtue of committee actions.”

The panel, known officially as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, operates largely in secret. On Friday, committee officials declined any comment, including on whom they planned to summon to the committee’s meeting room in the Capitol Hill basement, though it is expected to interview House GOP leaders and perhaps Foley and former pages.

The investigative subcommittee will be made up of committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), Berman and Reps. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio). Anyone summoned before the committee may be represented by an attorney and invoke the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The committee, the only one in the House evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, was paralyzed for more than a year. Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia stepped down earlier this year as the top Democrat after his conduct came under scrutiny, and ethics watchdogs had new hope for the committee after Berman was named as his replacement.

It was an “honor I could have done without,” Berman quipped at the time.

The committee in May launched investigations into the activities of Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William J. Jefferson (D-La.), and into whether other House members were involved in the dealings of now-imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe). None of those probes have yet resulted in public reports.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.


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