Concerns that the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee may have used a credit card bill to woo donations from credit card companies has prompted the chamber's ethics panel to open an investigation.
The Washington Post first reported on Friday that staffers to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) suspected foul play as early as this summer, after the committee unexpectedly took up a tough bill that would have implemented new fees to protect against credit card identity theft.
According to the Post, Thompson collected about $15,000 in donations from the industry shortly after those hearings began, but no bill was ever introduced.
Thompson, however, denied the charge, and his committee staff director said the credit card hearings were the
result of a data breach at a payment company, not an attempt to score campaign contributions.
"That's incorrect," the congressman told the Post. "We do hearings all the time — sometimes we are able to generate legislation earlier, and sometimes we have to make a public record."
Former committee staff members also told the Post they suspected similar conflicts of interest motivated Thompson's actions on other issues facing the committee. One staff member told the newspaper she had been fired for complaining about industry lobbyists, some of whom made "improper requests" of her and her colleagues.
But the congressman said Friday he had never once heard those sorts of complaints from his staff.
"I would assume if discomfort was there with the staff they would have shared it," he told the Post. "I have not heard this."
Nevertheless, proving Thompson's involvement in any ethics violation is likely to be difficult, if not impossible, for congressional investigators. For one thing, as the Post aptly notes, committees have overlapping jurisdictions, and it is not too unthinkable that the Homeland Security panel would consider a credit card identity theft bill.
Moreover, a number of issues arise in hearings that never become bills, much less laws, and those issues often coincide with lawmakers' key contributors — healthcare reform despite industry donations being the most recent and pressing example.