Watchdog group calls on leaders to name new ethics committee

A prominent watchdog group is calling on the House’s top Democrat and Republican to start off the 112th Congress with a wholly new ethics committee because the present one is plagued by "utter turmoil."

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio), urging them to name an entirely new roster of ethics committee members after a tumultuous period for the panel.

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“The American people need to have confidence that the members of the ethics committee are dedicated to keeping Congress honest," executive director Melanie Sloan said in the letter. "Instead, the committee is in utter turmoil, leaving it incapable of meeting its mission of upholding ethical conduct. Under these circumstances, how can members or the public trust anything coming out of the committee?”

The ethics committee’s staff director, Blake Chisam, tendered his resignation before the November election and his departure is imminent, The Hill reported Wednesday. Sloan also cited revelations, reported first by The Washington Post, that Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the panel’s ranking member, had ordered the U.S. Capitol Police to block the doors of the committee offices for the week of Thanksgiving.

CREW’s call for dissolving and rebuilding the panel echoed a similar request from Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a panel member.

“We need a complete reconstitution of the committee from top to bottom in order to restore confidence in the committee,” he told The Hill.

The ethics committee operates in secrecy, and members of it rarely, if ever, openly criticize its work or discuss internal matters. Butterfield’s comments suggest even panel members are uneasy about the controversies surrounding its work in recent years.

Partisan tensions on the panel had been riding high for months, but they boiled over in November as the panel prepared for a public trial in the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Just days before the trial was to open, the committee announced an indefinite delay, citing only the discovery of new evidence.

It was later revealed that Chisam had tried to fire the lead attorney on the case, Morgan Kim, and another attorney, Stacey Sovereign, who was also serving on the Waters case. When Bonner objected, the panel instead placed the pair on indefinite administrative leave and the two have since hired their own attorneys to fend off any professional complaints against them.

Sloan also suggested the House leaders launch an investigation into what happened during the course of the Waters inquiry, including whether members or staff deliberately declined to obtain or produce either incriminating or exculpatory evidence. House sources have said the committee failed to obtain and review relevant documents from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the staff of the Financial Services Committee and that committee members and staff argued about what documents should be subpoenaed.

“Faith in the House ethics process is already historically low, and the information slowly leaking highlighting the committee’s dysfunction is sure to further diminish its reputation,” said Sloan. “As deeply divided as the House is, Republicans and Democrats will have to work together next Congress to instill confidence in the ethics process.”

This post intially misstated the name of the lead attorney on the Waters case.