A year later, Massa case gathers dust

Three days after Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a measure demanding that the House Ethics Committee issue a final report on the scandal by June 30, 2010.

Nearly a year after that deadline, with Boehner now the most powerful person in a Republican-controlled House, the Ethics Committee still has not issued its findings on Massa and has shown no sign of doing so, sparking a fresh round of criticism that the secretive panel is bogged down in its own inefficiency.

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Boehner, who has repeatedly stated his intention to hold members to “the highest ethical standards,” last year rebuffed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) comments that she would “drain the swamp” of corruption in the House. 

“The fact is that the swamp has not been drained,” Boehner told reporters last July. 

In the lead-up to the 2010 November elections, Republicans criticized Democrats for not pushing the Ethics Committee harder to investigate the Massa issue. House Republican Conference Secretary John Carter (Texas) told the National Journal that “the Massa matter is being swept under the rug.”

Massa was accused of sexually harassing a male staff member. 

It is now nearly six months since the GOP took control of the House and the House committees and Boehner replaced Pelosi in the Speaker’s chair. Yet Boehner and fellow Republicans have not issued any demands of the Ethics Committee to release its investigative findings on who among the House Democratic leadership knew about allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct between Massa and his staff, and when they knew it. 

Boehner demanded such information twice last year in the wake of the scandal, after media reports indicated that staff with Pelosi and then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) might have known of Massa’s troubles far in advance of his resignation and tried to deal with the issue behind closed doors. 

“The continued failure by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to establish an investigative subcommittee has held the committee and the full House to public ridicule,” stated Boehner in his resolution at the time.

One week after Boehner’s second resolution, the Ethics Committee formed an investigative subcommittee to look into the issue and interviewed Pelosi and Hoyer. But Boehner’s second deadline of July 31, 2010, came and went, and the committee still has not issued the report he requested. 

Spokesmen for both Boehner and Pelosi declined to comment for this article, stating that their policy is not to comment on matters before the Ethics Committee. 

A spokeswoman for Hoyer said the Democratic whip welcomed the Ethics Committee’s report on the matter and reiterated comments he made last year that his staff notified the committee immediately about the Massa allegations.

“We look forward to hearing the Ethics Committee’s report on this matter,” said Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for Hoyer. “Mr. Hoyer ensured it was brought to the committee as soon as serious allegations were known, and he has been very clear about what was known and when.”

In addition to conducting interviews, the Ethics investigative subcommittee is likely to have looked at email, text message and voice mail records, according to ethics experts. 

Dan Schwager, the House Ethics Committee’s staff director and chief counsel, also declined comment. 

“The committee can’t comment on individual matters in response to inquiries,” he said.

According to watchdog groups, the secretive panel’s continued delay in releasing the Massa report offers a clear picture of the committee’s inability to move forward effectively with investigations. 

For the past seven months, the committee has been consumed with reorganizing its inner ranks, ever since it slammed the brakes on its investigation into allegations against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) that she helped secure federal funding for a bank in which her husband owned stock.

Amid vehement disagreements between then-Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and -ranking member Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) about how to proceed with the case against Waters, two of the panel’s attorneys were placed on administrative leave and the committee’s chief counsel stepped down. 

Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said the committee has no excuse for not moving forward on the Massa and Waters issues, especially since it hired a new chief counsel and staff director more than seven weeks ago. 

“The House Ethics Committee is notorious for trying to avoid work whenever it possibly can,” Holman said. “The House Ethics Committee has had more than enough time to get its staff back together and get reorganized and working. The House ethics work is given last priority in Congress. If they can manage to avoid doing work, that makes most of Congress quite happy.”

Though the committee is still not fully staffed, its workload has not been tremendously heavy. The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) did not refer a single matter to the House Ethics Committee, according to its report for the first three months of 2011. In the last three months of 2010, the OCE referred only one matter to the committee, which the committee announced earlier this year it would not pursue. 

Robert Walker, the former chief counsel with the committee from 2000 to 2003, said he expects the committee to act on the Massa and Waters matters soon. 

“It’s probably getting around time to where we ought to be expecting them to make some decisions on these matters,” Walker said. “But to take the position that they are woefully behind on them doesn’t take into account these structural obstacles that they’ve faced. That’s not a reason why they shouldn’t be moving on anything. But to say that they’re stagnant is probably not true.”

A collection of watchdog groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen, are planning to send another letter to the committee in the next several weeks asking that it move forward with its business. They sent a similar letter in March.