Ethics panel can't be used against lawmakers

What lawmakers tell the ethics committee cannot be used against them in a court of law.

An appeals court has ruled that constitutional separation-of-powers protections prevent federal prosecutors from using anything lawmakers tell the ethics committee against them in a federal criminal investigation.

The decision expands legal protections for federal lawmakers that could make it more difficult to prosecute them for any crime involving their office.

The case involved former Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and the now-notorious golf trip he took to Scotland in 2003. Jack Abramoff paid for the trip and accompanied Feeney, although Feeney reported on his financial disclosure form that a non-profit sponsored it. House rules bar lobbyists from paying for lawmakers’ travel.

The House ethics committee two years ago ruled that the trip violated House rules and Feeney agreed to pay more than $5,000 for its costs.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. unsealed the opinion late Thursday that was first filed June 23. The decision shows that the Justice Department was using statements Feeney made to the ethics panel in its investigation, although it doesn’t name Feeney.  The court cites the Constitution’s speech or debate clause as preventing intrusion by the executive branch on legislative affairs as the basis for its decision.

A lower court had previously rejected Feeney’s argument that his statements to the ethics committee should be sacrosanct and not used against him by the DOJ.

Feeney’s attorney said in a statement that the decision was a vindication and proof that he did nothing wrong.

“I have said all along that I engaged in no wrongdoing in connection with my trip to Scotland while a member of Congress,” the statement said. “I hope that the court's decision will now bring this matter to a close.”

Feeney voluntarily asked the ethics committee to review the trip’s financing to Scotland after news broke that Abramoff paid for the trip. Feeney had listed The National Center for Public Policy Research, where Abramoff served on the board, as paying for the trip on his annual financial disclosure form.

Feeney lost his seat to Democrat Suzanne Kosmas in 2008 after Democrats targeted him for his connections to Abramoff.