Speaker pressured to intervene in ethics office-panel dispute

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is facing mounting pressure to intervene in an intense dispute between an outside ethics office she pushed through the House and the full ethics committee.

The stakes are high for the future of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a new entity Democrats created to help police lawmakers. Its board members and top staff are threatening to resign if the ethics committee doesn’t meet a deadline the OCE believes is critical to its role, according to several sources within the ethics community.

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Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the Speaker believes cooler heads will prevail and the two sides will forge a compromise before Friday’s deadline for the ethics committee to release the OCE reports it sent regarding two separate members.

“We remain confident that any issue that may arise will be resolved by the two bodies working together in the interests of the House,” he said.

The ethics committee has until Friday, or possibly Saturday, to release separate investigative reports on Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Sam Graves (R-Mo.). The rules governing the creation of the OCE force the ethics committee to release the OCE’s investigative reports on members that are forwarded to the panel for further review unless it launches an investigative subcommittee, a sign the committee is seriously investigating the allegations.

On Sept. 16, the ethics committee announced that it had voted to extend consideration of the Graves and Waters matters for an additional 45 days. As the OCE reads the calendar, the report should be made official Friday.

The top watchdogs in Washington are watching the matter closely. They were intimately involved in the discussions and debates that led to the creation of the OCE and have been monitoring its contribution to helping burnish the House ethics process. So far, all of the groups have been impressed with the OCE’s work and feel that its authority, as well as Democrats’ credibility on ethics matters, is on the line this week.

“I think it’s a very dangerous time for Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats,” said Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. “I hope they understand how tenuous the situation is because of how high-profile they’ve been on the ethics issue and their claims of holding the high ground.”

Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the top GOP member of the ethics committee, said the panel was planning to meet Wednesday to figure out how to proceed.

“It’s premature to speculate about whether deadlines are going to be met and actions are going to be taken,” he said.

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Bonner, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and top OCE board members and staff met Tuesday, as well as several other times during the last two weeks.

In the wake of the Jack Abramoff GOP lobbying scandal, Pelosi and Democrats pledged to “drain the swamp” in Washington, a promise that became key to their winning back the majority in 2006. If they allow a meltdown to occur at the OCE, they will have a mess on their hands and “hand over the ethics high ground to Republicans,” McGehee argued.

Neither the OCE nor the ethics committee indicated what allegations had surfaced against Graves. He has said it focuses on testimony before the Small Business Committee, and media reports have focused on charges that Graves invited a friend and neighbor, Brooks Hurst, to testify at a hearing on renewable fuels without disclosing that his wife and Hurst are investors in renewable fuels plans in Missouri.

The New York Times
and other newspapers questioned Waters’s role in directing up to $50 million in special bailout money to BankOne when her husband had served on the bank’s board of directors until early last year and has owned at least $250,000 in stock in the institution.

There is a report on another unidentified member that the OCE forwarded to the ethics panel that also is due to be released Friday, according to the OCE's third-quarter report.