By Susan Crabtree - 01/07/11 05:27 PM EST
After a turbulent tenure as House ethics committee chairwoman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) will remain as its ranking member for the next three weeks — or longer — while Democrats look for a successor.
Lofgren, however, is adamant about leaving the panel as soon as possible, and told Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Thursday in a private meeting that she wants to be off the panel in February, two Democratic sources said.
While Lofgren clearly wishes to leave the committee, Pelosi could have a tough time finding a replacement so she may be forced to remain.
The usually secretive ethics committee’s last two years were unusually busy as the panel wrestled with the investigations and public trials of Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Charles Rangel (N.Y.), whom the House ultimately censured in December.
Partisan tensions flared openly last summer when Bonner, in a public statement, accused Lofgren of stalling the trials until after the midterm elections for political purposes.
The messy public spectacles involving Waters and Rangel played out in the final months of a difficult and ultimately devastating campaign for Democrats.
Democrats are struggling to find a replacement for Lofgren, so she agreed to remain on the committee temporarily to sign off on the organizing papers and approval process for the annual House Republican and Democratic retreats planned for early this year, two Democratic sources said.
Ethics committee rules require consensus between the chairman and ranking member on procedural issues, and the committee could not function unless Lofgren agreed to stay on for at least the first few weeks of the new Congress.
After Bonner’s public accusations against Lofgren, relations disintegrated further. In November as the panel prepared to hold Waters's public trial, Lofgren tried to fire the top two attorneys on her case for reasons that are still unclear. Bonner blocked the move and the two lawyers – Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign – were placed on indefinite administrative leave.
The ethics panel has not said what will happen to the staffers or whether there will be an outside investigation.
In the final days of the year, Blake Chisam, the panel’s staff director, resigned, although he had given no notice before the election about plans to do so.
Chisam’s departure followed the resignation of Office of Congressional Ethics Staff Director and Chief Counsel Leo Wise, who endured a barrage of criticism for aggressively pursuing ethics investigations.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a member of the panel, before the recess called on GOP and Democratic leaders to appoint brand-new panel members on both sides of the aisle to restore its integrity.
“We need a complete reconstitution of the committee from top to bottom in order to restore confidence in the committee,” he told The Hill.
He also said he no longer wanted to serve on the committee, an assignment most members try to avoid because it involves the thorny task of policing their peers. He reiterated his intention to leave the panel in a brief interview Friday but declined to comment further.
It’s unclear whether the same rank-and-file members on each side of the aisle will continue to serve on the panel or whether Republicans and Democrats will name a new roster.
In addition to Bonner, Lofgren and Butterfield, the panel during the last Congress included GOP Reps. Mike Conaway (Texas), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Gregg Harper (Miss.) and Michael McCaul (Texas), and Democratic Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.), Kathy Castor (Fla.) and Peter Welch (Vt.).
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan denounced the decision to reject Butterfield’s advice and reappoint the same top two members of Congress on the panel.
“We’re only two days into the new Congress and already the House leadership has demonstrated it does not take ethics seriously,” she said. “… [T]he House leadership has chosen to ignore the committee’s well-publicized problems and reappoint Reps. Bonner and Lofgren. This move signals how little regard the new House has for the ethics process.”
Members rarely, if ever, openly criticize the ethics committee’s work or discuss internal matters. Butterfield’s comments suggest even panel members are uneasy about the controversies surrounding its work over the last few years.
During Rangel’s brief public trial, Butterfield complained that the panel was moving forward with the proceedings even though Rangel lacked an attorney at the time. Other members of the panel defeated Butterfield’s motion to delay the trial.
Waters has repeatedly called on the committee to offer a public explanation for its decision to suspend Kim and Sovereign, and threatened to force an investigation. With little time left on the legislative calendar late last year, Waters decided to drop the effort and not force a vote on a resolution she offered that would have created a task force to look into the suspensions.
—This post was last updated at 3:36 p.m.