By Susan Crabtree - 06/11/10 12:28 AM EDT
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has privately indicated she is willing to rewrite some of the ethics rules that House Democrats implemented two years ago.
Pelosi late last month met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) about the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which was created to bolster the ethics of the lower chamber.
At the meeting, which was also attended by CBC lawmaker and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), sources said Pelosi heard complaints about the OCE’s new powers and investigation tactics.
Pelosi and Clyburn were sympathetic, because the OCE has produced some unintended consequences, according to two sources in the room.
The House reconsiders its rules for the chamber every two years. Aides and legislators stressed that no decisions have been made on the new rules for the 112th Congress.
Some legislators have complained that when the House ethics committee rejects an OCE recommendation to investigate a member, the OCE findings are sometimes made public and tarnish the lawmaker’s reputation.
While amending the OCE is being considered, making such changes now would be politically difficult because Republicans are citing Democratic ethics scandals in their effort to retake control of the House.
CBC members and Pelosi discussed a plan to begin a dialogue over the next few months about changing the OCE’s rules following the midterm elections. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), a former prosecutor who was elected in a 2009 special election after the death of then-ethics committee Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), volunteered to lead the effort.
Sources say Fudge was expected to craft proposed changes to the OCE and circulate them among like-minded lawmakers on both sides of aisle. But in a move that has irritated some House Democrats, Fudge quietly introduced the legislation on May 28 with 19 CBC co-sponsors. Days later, government watchdogs and the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times blasted Fudge’s resolution.
Fudge’s handling of the matter has been described as clumsy, and hampered the effort to make changes to the ethics process.
Some proponents of changing the OCE believed Fudge’s draft plan would be given to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who headed the task force creating the OCE in 2008. Capuano would then review the proposal and make the case publicly for some changes to the OCE, sources said.
Fudge’s move was “politically tone deaf” and a “rookie mistake,” critics said Thursday.
Capuano said he had yet to be approached about spearheading a new effort to modify the OCE. He said he would be open to doing so, but warned that he would not “rubber-stamp” changes he didn’t agree with.
Even though Fudge’s resolution has 19 co-sponsors, some of them signed on with the understanding that the bill would not be formally introduced until at least a handful of Republicans had agreed to back it.
“This was moved too soon — it just leaves us hanging out there,” one CBC lawmaker said.
During the meeting with Pelosi last month, Reps. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) complained about the treatment they received from OCE investigators, CBC sources said. Richardson has been under OCE investigation for allegedly improper gifts involved in a mortgage on her Sacramento home, and Waters faces questions about intervening with the Treasury Department on behalf of a bank with ties to her husband.
Richardson, who won her Tuesday primary in a strongly Democratic-leaning district, said she plans to hold a press conference detailing her complaints about the OCE after the ethics committee concludes its investigation.
The ethics committee took up the case and has recently subpoenaed documents from a California gas company after the OCE recommended further review.
Richardson has not signed onto Fudge’s bill but said she will consider it.
“I always think it’s the right time to do what’s right, regardless of the politics,” she said. “I lived two years with these newspaper articles … it’s unfortunate.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a CBC member who serves on the ethics committee, emphasized that complaints are coming from Democrats and Republicans — and he believes those concerns should be addressed.
“I think it’s time to take a fresh look at the OCE,” he said.
Bipartisan anger over the OCE has flared at times in the 111th Congress as members have reacted to being investigated by an independent body. The OCE’s creation at Pelosi’s urging in 2008 marked the first time members of Congress have handed over some power to police themselves to an outside group.
The 2008 measure creating the OCE passed 207-206, mostly along party lines. A few co-sponsors of Fudge’s legislation, such as Waters, were among the 18 Democrats who defected on that vote.
The OCE consists of a board composed mainly of former members, as well as a team of lawyers and investigators, which can initiate inquiries into members and recommend further investigation by the full ethics committee. The OCE has no subpoena power and cannot exact punishment on members.
Fudge’s measure would restrict the OCE’s power to comment publicly on cases that it dismisses, prevent the ethics committee from releasing the OCE findings if it too finds no evidence of wrongdoing, and limit public complaints to witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the allegations.
Some CBC members also are questioning why Fudge was allowed to lead the effort after the ethics committee just last year admonished her chief of staff, Dawn Kelly Mobley, for advising members and corporations how to get around new House rules against corporate-sponsored travel while serving as the ethics committee staff director under Tubbs Jones.
But Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a CBC member who is leaving the House after losing his gubernatorial primary last week, said he hopes Pelosi and the rest of the leadership stands behind the OCE and the higher ethical standards it is challenging members to uphold.
“There was a problem a few years ago with corruption in this institution, and that’s why it was created,” Davis said. “I would hate to see the leadership walk away from this commitment — as I look back as a private citizen. No member should be threatened by a more vigilant ethics system.”
Earlier this week six watchdogs groups — the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters — wrote to Pelosi, urging the Speaker to stand strongly behind the OCE.