Ethics process for Weiner could drag on

An ethics investigation into whether Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) violated House rules would likely drag out until 2012, according to ethics experts.

If the investigation is launched, it could have an impact on next year’s election, both for the Democratic Party, as it tries to retake control of the House, and for Weiner personally.

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Staff changes at the House Ethics Committee and a backlog of work would be the cause of the delay.

“They’ve got at least a couple of pending matters that are still in the pipeline that are unresolved,” said Rob Walker, a former staff director for the committee. “I believe that the committee still remains below full staff level, including its investigative staff.

“That being said, here we are in June — I think it unlikely if the committee took this up now that it would resolve the matter before the end of the year,” said Walker, an attorney with Wiley Rein.

“Nor do I think that it should be expected to resolve the matter before the end of the year. Six months in an ethics inquiry — that would be short, and that might not even be thorough. But that doesn’t mean that these matters should take forever or should take years," Walker said.

Weiner’s admission this week that he engaged in a lengthy series of “inappropriate” conversations and online relationships with “about six” women over the last three years has spurred talk about whether the committee should investigate allegations that the lawmaker might have misused official congressional resources.

But the Ethics Committee has been in a state of upheaval since late last year, when two attorneys with the panel were placed on administrative leave in the midst of an investigation into Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The committee’s fluidity was further disrupted last month when it replaced its staff director and chief counsel. According to multiple ethics experts, the committee is still not fully staffed. 

As a result of the inner re-workings, the panel has a growing pile of pending cases and matters, such as the release of the committee’s report on former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.). Massa resigned last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and the committee has yet to release its findings.

No official complaint has been filed against Weiner, but the Ethics Committee does not need one to commence a preliminary examination of the facts surrounding Weiner’s admissions.

With or without an official complaint, if the committee determines that it has enough information pointing to a possible violation of House rules, it will establish an investigative subcommittee.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and Ranking Member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) issued a joint statement:

"If and when an investigation is appropriate in any matter, the Committee will carry out its responsibilities pursuant to our rules and with the utmost integrity and fairness. Pursuant to our rules of confidentiality, we will not have any further comment at this time."

The House rules state that “a Member … of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

But over the years the gray area around this rule has been debated by members of the Ethics Committee — specifically, as to whether it should apply to a lawmaker’s personal conduct or only his or her official comportment.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) letter to the heads of the Ethics panel on Tuesday said that Weiner’s actions “warranted” an investigation, but it fell short of officially filing a complaint with the committee for a probe into the matter.

Pelosi’s letter will spur Bonner and Sanchez to look at the facts of Weiner’s situation and determine whether the panel should launch an investigative subcommittee to dig deeper into any alleged violations of the House rules, according to Walker.

“Were it purely personal conduct between consenting adults, that might be one thing,” Walker said.

“But now there are suggestions that official resources might have been used. And the pace at which information is coming out suggests that we may not know the whole story yet,” he said.

Weiner has said that he does not think he used any congressional resources, such as House computers or BlackBerrys, while he engaged in the online relationships.

“I don’t believe that I did anything that violates any law or any rule,” he said at his press conference on Monday. He has pledged to cooperate with any ethics investigation.

One of the women with whom Weiner allegedly engaged in conversations told the Radar Online website that he had called her from his congressional office.

Ethics experts have pointed to allegations raised in several online publications that Weiner may have used congressional staff to help coach some of the women with their stories about the online relationships they’d been engaging in, after the initial picture of his groin sent via Twitter dominated the news cycle last week.

This would be a direct violation of the House Ethics rules, which state that, “Employees of the House are paid from funds of the United States Treasury to perform public duties. These duties…do not include performing nonofficial, personal, or campaign duties.”

The House’s chief administrative officer will likely be called before the Ethics Committee to hand over phone and computer records from Weiner’s office.

While ethics experts, including Walker and two others who wished to remain anonymous, said it is too early to predict what outcome could result from an investigation, the possibilities include a letter of reproval, a letter of admonition, a reprimand, censure or expulsion.

A move to reprimand or, more severely, censure, a lawmaker calls on the House to publicly rebuke the member, disapproving of his or her conduct. The letters would not recommend action by the full House, but would be an expression of the committee that the member’s conduct was improper. Expulsion is extremely rare and has only occurred five times in the history of the House — three of which occurred in matters related to the Civil War.

Weiner’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A call to the office’s main line went to voice mail, which was full. And an email to Weiner’s spokesman, Dave Arnold, was not returned.

Updated at 11:30 p.m.