Hoyer: Democrats meeting pledge to ‘drain swamp’ on ethics

The dozens of investigations of lawmakers revealed last week by an accidental ethics committee leak show that Democrats are living up to their pledge to make Congress more ethical, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday.

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“There were a lot of people saying the ethics committee isn’t doing anything,” Hoyer said at his weekly news briefing. “They have been emphatically disabused of that notion. The reports have indicated they’re doing their job."

Hoyer (D-Md.) also argued that the large number of Democrats under investigation shows that leaders and committee members from the majority party aren’t protecting their own.

“People also said it was partisan. This shows it is not,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer’s comments come days after a leaked ethics panel report revealed more than 30 lawmakers, mostly Democrats, are under scrutiny by the committee. The Washington Post obtained the report last week after a security breach. which was attributed to a low-level committee staffer working at home, and using a peer-to-peer, file-sharing program.

According to the Post’s report, more than 25 Democrats have been targeted for ethics reviews by the ethics committee and the new Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Only seven Republicans appear to be under scrutiny.

Hoyer said the unauthorized release of the document was unfortunate because confidentiality is important “to protect the innocent.”

Ethics groups said they were pleased to learn of the investigations, but warned Democrats must show a willingness to punish poor behavior to fulfill 2006 campaign promises to “drain the swamp” and run the “most ethical Congress.”

“…We were pleasantly surprised to learn the ethics committee is investigating so many members of Congress, but starting an investigation isn’t enough,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a release last week. “The real question is whether any of the members under investigation will ever be held accountable for their conduct.”

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She went on to say that the ethics panel’s record on such matters is dismal.

Watchdogs have zeroed in on the committee’s failure to interview Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) about alleged tax and other financial violations even though he has been under investigation for nearly a year and a half.

The ethics committee, however, did interview him about the trip to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten that he and four members of the Congressional Black Caucus took last November, according to the Post’s report.

Rangel told the Post that the committee had not interviewed him to discuss other elements of the investigation involving his personal finances and whether he misused House letterhead to raise funds for a college center named after him, among other allegations. 

The document also showed that that seven members of the Defense appropriations subcommittee are being looked at because of their connections to the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group.

The members have steered federal earmarks to the firm’s clients and received tens of thousands of campaign contributions from PMA Group employees and their clients.

The lawmakers under scrutiny include Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Defense, as well as Reps. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Bill Young (R-Fla.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), according to the report in the Post.

The document also shows that the ethics committee authorized subpoenas to the Justice Department, the National Security Agency and the FBI for information about Rep. Jane Harman’s (D-Calif.) 2005 conversation with an Israeli operative who was trying to win leniency for two pro-Israel lobbyists in exchange for his help in getting the Intelligence Committee chairmanship.

The Justice Department had asked the panel to suspend an investigation of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), according to the document, suggesting a continued Justice probe.

The new Office of Congressional Ethics, governed by an independent board of former lawmakers, has sparred with the ethics committee about whether a Republican broke rules when he invited his wife's business partner to testify at a hearing.

Hoyer said that the friction between the two entities is “not unusual.”

The House ethics committee scrutinized nearly two-dozen members and aides in the 110th Congress, according to the panel's biennial report.

The committee conducted informal inquiries into 14 members and three House employees, none of whom it identified, as well as five formal investigations into then-Reps. William Jefferson (D-La.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), and Reps. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Rangel.