GOP ethics woes plague Boehner

House Republicans are engaged in a two-front war. One is the public relations battle over how to proceed in Iraq. But even closer to home, they are facing new challenges on ethics—the other major issue that plagued them during the 2006 campaign and lead to the loss of their majority.

House Republicans are engaged in a two-front war. One is the public relations battle over how to proceed in Iraq. But even closer to home, they are facing new challenges on ethics—the other major issue that plagued them during the 2006 campaign and lead to the loss of their majority.

Tuesday’s indictments of two allies of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (D-Calif.) on an array of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges could ensnare more GOP lawmakers as prosecutors negotiate the terms of their cases. Coupled with new and ongoing Justice Department investigations into the land deals of two other House Republicans from California, Gary Miller and Ken Calvert, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is facing a critical test on how to tackle the ethics front while maintaining a cohesive conference.

“There is a great deal of concern in the conference about ethics,” said Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). “I don’t think there’s a doubt at all that problems with [Cunningham and former Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.)] were all very different, but all were very damaging to the House of Representatives as an institution.”

Added Castle: “Leadership should be ready to enforce the [ethics] rules – to find out what’s going on and be willing to deal with it.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) agreed, arguing that perception is reality and members of Congress must be “mindful of that.”

“In this environment, it behooves everyone to be proactive,” she said.

During last year’s tawdry scandal surrounding Foley’s sexual electronic communications with House pages, Boehner initially said in a radio interview that then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has oversight over the page board. That comment was perceived as criticism of Hastert’s failure to address early warnings about Foley’s behavior. 

Some of Boehner’s GOP colleagues give him high marks for his willingness to discuss ethics questions about members with the conference – even if most of his comments have occurred behind closed doors during private conference meetings.

“I find it refreshing that these things are being talked about,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) who lost a lopsided race for minority leader against Boehner last year. “I’ve heard more about ethics in the last six months than I’ve heard in the last six years.”

But there are reservations. During a conference meeting last Tuesday, Boehner told his colleagues that he was going to take ethics matters seriously and confront members when allegations of impropriety come to his attention. He then told members that he had met with Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI for his close ties to a now-defunct lobbying firm that received millions of dollars in federal contracts. Boehner said he believed that, in Lewis’ case, the precept of innocent until proven guilty should prevail.

Boehner has also informed Congress that he met with Gary Miller. But witnesses have offered different accounts about what the minority leader told GOP members during a meeting that covered the allegations in question. Chief among them is that Miller had used his office staff and the legislative process to enrich his business partner and himself—and that he evaded paying taxes on some of his multi-million dollar land deals.

Some media accounts have characterized these comments to conclude that Boehner is giving Miller a clean bill of health, or at least taking Miller at his word. Indeed, Miller later defended himself to the GOP conference and received a standing ovation.

But Rep. Zack Wamp (R-Tenn.), a frequent critic of the previous GOP leadership team, said those accounts are inaccurate.

Wamp said the message Boehner sent was viewed as a warning to other members.

“We will not deny that a problem exists with any member and we will confront that member eyeball-to-eyeball,” Wamp said.

Exactly how that translates into tangible action is unclear. During the conference when he defended himself, Miller said he handed over documents to the ethics committee late last year to clear his name from what he called a media and Democratic “smear campaign” against him. Miller, an early public supporter of Boehner’s minority leader bid, also said he shared those documents with Boehner and would share them with any interested member of the conference. But for his part, Boehner did not directly address whether he believed the documents bolstered Miller’s case.

One thing is certain: Boehner knew about the allegations against Miller in December but did nothing in January to prevent him from being appointed ranking member of the Financial Services subcommittee in charge of oversight and investigation. 

Boehner’s spokesman referred to an earlier comment he made when asked whether Miller will be allowed to continue in the post.

“If any Republican member is found to have violated ethics rules or broken laws, this leadership team and the steering committee will act accordingly and decisively,” Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy previously said.

Pence predicted that Boehner would respond more aggressively if formal charges were filed against any member.

“With the last leadership, there was a sense that they would wait out the storm even after formal charges,” he said. “I don’t get that sense with Boehner.”