Leak to media about Ethics probes ignites chatter on source, motives

A leak to the media that identified three Republicans who are being investigated by the House Ethics Committee has lawmakers and staffers wondering who the source is, and his or her motive. 

There are many theories on who, over a four-day period, forked over the names of GOP Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas), Buck McKeon (Calif.) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.) to media outlets in reference to an ongoing investigation into VIP loans given to lawmakers by Countrywide. 

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The leaks stunned the three legislators, who have all denied accepting special rates on the loans in exchange for political favors.

Some are pointing the finger at House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) for releasing the publicly sensitive information, though his office is pushing back at that notion.

Others are looking suspiciously at the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), who would stand to gain the most politically from the leak. But his office vehemently denies any role in the release.

Still others are blaming the secretive Ethics Committee, which has been plagued by leaks and stumbles over the past several years.

A spokesman for the Ethics Committee said, “We don’t comment on specific matters.”

Issa has been conducting a nearly yearlong investigation into the Countrywide issue in the wake of news articles indicating that two Senate Democrats had gotten special rates from Countrywide.

The California Republican has uncovered more information. After issuing a subpoena to the company in February 2011, it was revealed that Countrywide Financial had given four House members discounted rates on home loans.

Last month, Issa sent a letter to the Ethics panel noting that four lawmakers might have violated the House’s rules, but stopped short of publicly naming the individual members.

One of them is Rep. Edolphus Towns, but that revelation was not news because the New York Democrat had previously said he was given a Countrywide VIP loan. Towns was chairman of the Oversight panel in 2009 and 2010.

Asked whether Issa had a hand in releasing the names to the press, his spokesman, Frederick Hill, said he was unaware of any role the office might have played.  

He noted that media reports have cited public documents and conversations with the members who were identified.

Hill added, “The committee has appropriately referred information it’s come across to the House Ethics Committee.”

Pressed on the matter, Hill responded, “I’m not aware of any such release” of the names.

Hill declined to acknowledge that Gallegly, McKeon and/or Sessions were referred by Issa to the Ethics Committee. 

Cummings’s spokeswoman, Ashley Etienne, also denied giving out the names to the press.

“The minority did not disclose publicly the identity of any House members who Chairman Issa referred to the Ethics Committee in connection with his investigation of Countrywide VIP loans,” Etienne said. 

Two of the three GOP members are from Issa’s home state of California, and the third is a lawmaker who is looking to move up the leadership ladder. McKeon is chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, while Gallegly announced earlier this month he is not seeking reelection. Sessions is serving his second term as chairman of the House GOP campaign arm. 

“On its face it’s suspicious,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who sits on the Oversight Committee.

At various times this month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has highlighted the news about Sessions and Countrywide. 

The controversy intensified on Jan. 14, when The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Gallegly and McKeon were among the four whom Issa had referred to the Ethics panel.

On Jan. 17, The Associated Press revealed that Sessions was the fourth lawmaker referred to the Ethics Committee. 

Connolly said he doesn’t know who leaked the names to the press, but is very interested to find out who it was and why Sessions’s name was released three days after Gallegly’s and McKeon’s. 

The revelation of the names of his GOP colleagues has most likely made life in the Republican Conference difficult for Issa, said Connolly. 

“He boasted that nothing was going to stop him and let the chips fall where they may, but he was assuming, of course, that all of the members would be Democrats,” Connolly said. 

For the past three years, Issa has waged an active campaign to uncover which lawmakers received special loans, pledging to turn over any potential violators of House rules to the Ethics panel. By following through on his promise — despite the political hit that it might have cost him in his own party — he appears as a far more impartial investigator than he is perceived.

As a leading Democrat, Cummings stands to make obvious gains from the news of the three Republicans being referred to the Ethics panel. But Cummings has been against the committee’s investigation into the VIP loan affair. Any leak on his part would include running the risk of being painted as a hypocrite, ready to exploit findings when it suits him politically. 

Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said, “It’s a big problem when people just use the Ethics Committee as a political weapon. And yet sadly that’s so routinely the case. Everyone only cares about the ethics of the other party’s members.”

Spokesmen for Gallegly, McKeon and Sessions declined to answer questions on whom they suspected as the source of the leak. They instead pointed to comments made earlier stressing the innocence of their respective members. None, including Towns, has been accused of wrongdoing, only of receiving a loan through the controversial Countrywide program. 

Issa has been calling for transparency regarding Countrywide’s VIP loan program since 2008, when Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and now-retired Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) were revealed as being involved. 

The Senate Ethics Committee subsequently cleared Conrad and Dodd, but indicated they should have used better judgment. Dodd opted not to seek reelection last year, and Conrad will retire at the end of 2012.

As the Oversight panel’s ranking Republican during the last Congress, Issa launched an investigation and called on Towns to subpoena documents. Issa later released a 63-page report on Countrywide.

Following the 2010 election, Cummings supplanted Towns as the panel’s top Democrat. Towns accused House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of engineering the move.