Monday, October 30, 2006

The Ethics Committee investigation of Hastert and the Foley Scandal: Recent History Does not Inspire Confidence - Center for Media and Democracy

The Ethics Committee investigation of Hastert and the Foley Scandal: Recent History Does not Inspire Confidence - Center for Media and Democracy

As our regular readers undoubtedly know, the House Ethics Committee is in the process of investigating the response of the Republican House leadership to early warning signs in the Mark Foley page scandal. Last week we learned that the committee is expected to issue a report, but not until after next week's elections. The cynical response that this revelation begs is fairly reasonable, especially considering that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has a recent history of attempting to muzzle the committee. The following history can be found on the Congresspedia page on the House Ethics Commmittee and is another demonstration on how this "citizens' encyclopedia on Congress" can be an essential guide to understanding the news of the day.

In 2004, the Ethics Committee under then-Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) aggressively pursued allegations of misconduct against then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The committee did not officially sanction DeLay with violations of any House rules, but it did admonish him for three incidents which the committee said could lead to the perception of impropriety in Congress. Many Republicans were enraged by the Republican-led panel’s actions. In October, not long after the last of the admonishments, Hefley was quoted in The Hill as saying “I’ve been attacked; I’ve been threatened,” in reference to members of his own party.

On February 3, 2005, at the start of the 109th Congress, Hastert replaced Hefley with Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican seen as more loyal to the Republican leadership. Hastert also ousted two other Republican panel members, Reps. Kenny Hulshof and Steve LaTourette, who had voted with Hefley to admonish DeLay and voted against an internal Republican rule change meant to protect DeLay as majority leader in the case of his indictment in a Texas investigation into his behavior. In the place of the removed lawmakers, Hastert appointed Reps. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and Tom Cole (R-Okla.). According to Common Cause, all three voted for the caucus rule change. Even more notably, Smith and Cole donated thousands of dollars ($10,000 and $5,000 respectively) to DeLay’s legal defense fund. Dissenting Republican congressmen were not the only victims of the Ethics Committee purge. Upon assuming his position as chairman, Hastings fired both the committee’s longtime staff director and its chief spokesperson. He attempted to replace the former with his personal office’s chief of staff.

House Republicans also unilaterally imposed several modifications to the rules governing the committee. Previously an investigation would automatically be triggered if the committee was deadlocked on a complaint for more than 45 days. Instead, the complaint would now be dismissed. Given the committee's composition of five Republicans and five Democrats, this rule would have essentially meant that either party could have killed any investigation with a party line vote. The other two new rules allowed the preparation of witnesses by the same lawyer — a process previously discouraged to prevent witness cooperation — and the requirement that a member of Congress be allowed to contest the facts of the letter informing him that he was under investigation before it was publicly released.

House Democrats were enraged by both the rule changes and the placement of a partisan chief of staff in a position previously considered non-partisan. Rather than go along with either development, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.V.), then the ranking Democrat on the committee, opted to shut the committee down by simply refusing to attend its inaugural meeting, which preventinged it from being constituted. At the end of March 2006, the Republicans caved to Democratic demands and rolled back the rule changes. In early July, the committee was finally able to resume operation after Hastings and Mollohan reached a deal where their personal staff would be their liaisons to the committee but the actual committee staff would be non-partisan.

While that particular Ethics Committee battle was resolved almost a year and a half ago, the members named to the committee by Hastert in January 2005 remain. While an investigation into the Republican leadership's actions prior to the breaking of the Foley scandal was politically necessary in the wake of the public outrage over the matter, it remains to be seen if Hastert's hand-picked jurors will find any fault in his actions.

—with Congresspedia intern Tim Malacarne

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