House Democrats hold off on ethics complaints, for now

House Democrats have no immediate plans to file complaints against Republicans when the ethics committee is up and running again, according to a top Democratic lawmaker.

As Republicans have hinted they may file formal ethics complaints, Democrats are content to sit on the sidelines for now.

“The Justice Department is moving, and there’s no reason to interfere and give the Republicans a tool to say the investigation is being politicized,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “That’s not in their rhetoric, and right now they have to answer the Justice Department’s charges. Once it looks like it’s political, they don’t have to answer that.”

Democrats also said that they would not move forward because the panel remains shuttered after a months-long partisan disagreement over how to staff the committee and that the committee would not pursue an investigation in tandem with the Justice Department.

Still, a handful of House Republicans could be ensnared in the department’s wide-ranging influence-peddling probe involving Jack Abramoff, including Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio), identified as the “Representative #1” of a Justice Department inquiry in Abramoff’s Jan. 3 plea agreement.

Ney was recently persuaded to step down temporarily as chairman of the House Administration Committee.

With the focus on the Abramoff controversy so far highlighting Republican lawmakers and their possible indictments, GOP lawmakers could have more to gain than Democrats by filing ethics complaints.

Meanwhile, GOP sources say that the new staff director of the ethics committee, William Reilly, is nearly finished hiring an investigative staff.

A Republican aide attributed the Democratic reticence to concern by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about possible pressure on the ethics panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), to pursue the cases.

“Pelosi won’t permit complaints to be filed because she knows that doing so would put pressure on Mollohan to move forward,” the aide said. “Pelosi has the best of both worlds because she can criticize the failure to investigate when the only reason they can’t investigate is because she won’t let them.”

The ethics panel has investigations pending into Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on hold from the 108th Congress.

Despite the uncertainty, Democrats have their eyes on a House rule that requires complaints to be filed no fewer than 60 days before an election. The deadline for filing a complaint against Ney, given Ohio’s May 2 primary, is March 2.

Ney has offered to meet with the ethics panel several times but has not received a response, said his spokesman, Brian Walsh.

“Ney would welcome the opportunity to clear his name. … He is confident that has done nothing wrong and that he will ultimately cleared,” Walsh added.

Reps. DeLay, John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) also have ties to the Abramoff probe. In Texas, the primary is set for March 7, so Democrats have missed the 60-day window. But the California primary will take place Aug. 1, so Democrats have until June 1 to file a complaint against Pombo or Doolittle. 

Republicans and Democrats have lobbed threats of an ethics war against one other. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told reporters last week that it was unfortunate the ethics committee is shut down because “there are people on the other side that should be before the ethics committee and were cued up to go before the ethics committee.”

“Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has never been a party to an ethics truce and has always said that individual members have the right to file a complaint,” said Jennifer Crider, Pelosi’s spokeswoman.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who favors taking an aggressive approach in an ethics war against Republicans, is preparing a report titled, “America for Sale: The Cost of Corruption,” which she expects to release within the next few weeks, said Eric Burns, Slaughter’s spokesman. The report will tie ethics charges against the GOP to what the Democrats consider “horrific” legislative outcomes.