Thursday, May 18, 2006

Can a Wave Go Both Ways?

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (the Ethics Committee) has launched three new investigations - two against sitting Members of the House, and one into the Cunningham scandal, which appears to be growing by the day:

Ethics Panel Starts 3 Probes
Ney, Jefferson And Cunningham Cases End Hiatus
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006; A01

After 16 months of inactivity and partisan infighting, the House ethics committee launched investigations last night into bribery allegations against Reps. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.) and a separate inquiry into the widening scandal surrounding former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.).

The committee said it would have ordered another investigation, into the overseas trips of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), had the once-powerful lawmaker not announced that he will resign from the House on June 9.

The inquiries by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, come after the Justice Department intensified corruption investigations of Ney and Jefferson, and after Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and was sent to prison.

But as those and other scandals were unfolding, the ethics committee sat on the sidelines while Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for grinding the ethics process to a halt. Democrats said GOP leaders had changed the rules unfairly to thwart investigations that could have negative ramifications for the party. Republicans charged that the Democrats were dragging their feet on the panel's reorganization to bolster their accusations of a coverup.

That logjam was broken last month when Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the committee's ranking Democrat, was forced to leave the panel amid accusations that he used his congressional position to funnel money to his own home-state foundations, possibly enriching himself.

...Responding to last night's developments, Ney said in a statement: "For the last 15 months, all I have asked for is an opportunity to have the facts surrounding the Abramoff matter to be reviewed by the appropriate investigative bodies in order to have this matter addressed once and for all. Now that the Committee has been constituted, I am pleased that my request has been heard."

Robert P. Trout, an attorney for Jefferson, said in a statement, "This action is hardly surprising given recent media reports and editorial comment." He added that the congressman believes that "everyone should take a deep breath and allow the judicial process to work."

Trout also said that Jefferson has "never accepted payment from anyone for the performance of any act or duty for which he was elected."

The Cunningham inquiry could hold the most political significance, because it will look into activities that could snare lawmakers who so far have escaped official scrutiny. Cunningham confessed to accepting millions of dollars in bribes from two Southern California defense contractors, Mitchell J. Wade and Brent R. Wilkes.

The case took a new twist last month when Wade told prosecutors that Wilkes had an arrangement with a limousine company, which in turn had an arrangement with at least one escort service, one source said. Wade said limos would pick up Cunningham and a prostitute and bring them to suites that Wilkes maintained at the Watergate and Westin Grande hotels in Washington. Federal investigators are looking into whether other lawmakers also took part.

I've written on Jefferson and Ney, and the Cunningham scandal is a full-time-job - particularly as it expands to implicate everyone from Jerry Lewis to Porter Goss. I've also yet to talk about the recent allegations that Congressman Ken Calvert - another member of the House Appropriations Committee - benefited from the purchase of land in areas where he subsequently sponsored transportation projects - ultimately selling the land for a significant profit.

Up to now in this campaign season, analysts have wondered whether a 'throw the bums out' mentality would help Democrats and hurt Republicans. I am starting to think that voters may see enough evidence of corruption in Washington to throw out a raft of folks on both sides of the aisle. With all the names out there of people either accused or effectively 'convicted' - DeLay, Cunningham, Ney, Calvert, Doolittle, Pombo, Harris, Jefferson, McKinney, Baca, Mollohan, Schumer, Conyers, McDermott... there's plenty of fuel for a real focus on corruption that is neither Democrat nor Republican. The major networks, the MSM may soon start airing stories asking 'what's wrong in Washington,' and 'why have we elected a bunch of criminals?'

I don't think we'll see independent candidates winning races all of a sudden, but if someone came along to make him or herself the face of an 'ethics crusade,' you could probably get lots of free media coverage. And if you have the money to air ads in certain Congressional districts, you could wind up with a national movement big enough to target a range of Members associated with scandal. Such a move could harm incumbents of both parties.

On a more narrow note, Alan Mollohan is again going to be hurt by the fact that suddenly the House ethics process 'works.' The Post notes that in the 16 months that Mollohan was the lead Democrat on the Committee, it never did a thing because of partisan infighting. Now suddenly, investigations are launched. Why was he unable to get Congress to begin policing itself?

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