Mollohan swiftly rethought his position after press from Pelosi

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) was adamant Thursday that he would not resign his position as the top ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee, despite a recent barrage of negative press about his financial dealings.

“I’m not contemplating that at all,” he told Fox News.

But 24 hours and a call from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later, Mollohan had had time for contemplation.

“After giving the matter careful consideration, I have reluctantly concluded that the interests of both the [ethics] committee and my constituents would be best served by my temporarily stepping aside,” he said in a letter to Pelosi.

Pelosi had phoned Friday morning from San Francisco to discuss the issue, a signal that Democratic leaders were concerned that the West Virginian’s ethics worries could become a national distraction, some Democratic aides said. 

Democrats have made what they call the Republican “culture of corruption” the centerpiece of their election-year message, pinning their 2006 hopes on the public’s disillusionment with the GOP’s recent history of ethical missteps, indictments and a tearful resignation — as was the case with imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Republicans have answered with a “culture of hypocrisy” theme, pointing out instances when Democrats themselves have faced ethical questions. Mollohan’s ethics issues added much needed fuel to the Republican message machine.

The National Law and Policy Center (NLPC), a conservative watchdog group, had been researching Mollohan’s finances and appropriations work for months before it drafted a 500-page complaint and handed it to federal prosecutors. Shortly afterward, stories detailing Mollohan’s dealings ran days apart in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Not long after, the Times, The Washington Post and Mollohan’s hometown paper ran editorials calling for him to step down from his ethics post while he disputed the charges.

That pressure from editorial boards and others weighed heavily on Democrats, most especially Mollohan, who is facing his toughest fight in years. By Friday, Mollohan and the Democrats were ready to throw in the towel, even though some strategists argued that stepping down so soon would only encourage Republicans to launch more attacks on other marginal members.

Some Republicans have weathered worse ethical charges without giving up their committee posts, although Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who has been implicated in several plea agreements, did step down from the House Administration Committee.

Mollohan described the Democratic leader as “very supportive” and “more than friendly” on the call, their first since the stories about him broke.

The ethics committee, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is one of two House panels where the ranking Democrat serves solely at the pleasure of the party’s leader. (The other is the House Administration Committee.) With other committees, Pelosi must seek the approval of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee before making changes in leadership.

“We had a conversation where we just reasoned together about this and in reasoning together concluded that this course of action was the best course of action,” he recalled.

He said the ultimate decision had been his own.

Pelosi later described Mollohan’s move to step down as one of pragmatism, noting that the National Law and Policy Center had launched “highly partisan attacks on Democrats” in the past.

A Democratic strategist said the decision was well-advised.

“It’s the right thing for him. It’s the right thing for leadership,” said the strategist, who asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the charges against him are valid or not, it makes it hard for him to do his job while he’s under [suspicion].”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chief architect of the House Democrats’ campaign message, had been traveling back from fundraising stops in California on Friday. It was unclear whether he had weighed in with Pelosi about Mollohan’s predicament, but the two do speak each day, aides said.

Mollohan said he had yet to talk to Emanuel about his race but was counting on the DCCC to help. The race has become more competitive since the ethics questions surfaced nearly three weeks ago.

“I’ve gotta call [Rahm]. ... I’m expecting some help,” Mollohan said. “We’re doing really well [in fundraising], and we’ll do better. ... I’m quite confident DCCC will help us appropriately.”

House Democrats have become increasingly concerned that they may now need to spend money to retain Mollohan’s seat, although both aides and strategists said it was too soon to tell how perilous the incumbent’s situation was.

“Ultimately, we’re an incumbent-retention operation,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the DCCC. “We’ll do what it takes to hold on to anyone of those seats in country.”

Meanwhile, Democrats grudgingly admitted that even after a year of high-profile missteps the GOP had lodged a political blow against Mollohan.

“The Republicans have a long history of — even when under their own ethics cloud — of figuring out who is a potential target and then launching attacks against them. That’s the way they operate,” said Steve Elmendorf, a political strategist at Bryan Cave Strategies.

Mollohan agreed: “It’s an ugly business, and they’re particularly good at it. They’ve raised it to an art form.”

The GOP has no plans to let up now that Mollohan has stepped down.

“Hardly,” scoffed Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The Democrat ranking member of the ethics committee was forced to step down on a potential corruption charge; this is the Democrat Party fulfilling everything Republicans have said about their rampant culture of hypocrisy.”