When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks, her colleagues listen. But should they? On Wednesday, May 16, Pelosi, D-Calif., reiterated her view that the House Ethics Committee should investigate fellow California Democrat Tony Cardenas in relation to an alleged sexual assault he committed against a female teen 11 years ago. The committee responded that it did not have the authority to do this because the event occurred over three congressional cycles ago. Pelosi, herself a veteran of the panel, is aware of this rule. So why does she want a probe that can’t be undertaken?
As NLPC noted Monday, Tony Cardenas, a three-term House member and the chief campaign fundraising for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has a skeleton rattling about his closet. As the “John Doe” defendant cited in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on April 27, Cardenas allegedly sexually molested an unnamed 16-year-old girl in 2007, back when he was a member of the Los Angeles City Council. The suit accuses him of offering the girl water with an “unusual taste” during a golf course outing. After drinking, the girl shortly thereafter collapsed, though without losing consciousness. Driving her to a hospital, noted the Los Angeles Times, the future congressman “reached inside her shirt and rubbed her breasts…and also reached down her shorts and fondled her vagina.” Cardenas’ lawyer, Patricia Glaser, terms the allegations “baseless and reckless.” The congressman has agreed to cooperate with the ethics committee.
That brings us to Nancy Pelosi. From the start, the ranking Democratic member of the House has sought an investigation. On May 5, she stated, “I call upon the House Ethics Committee for a prompt investigation of this matter.” This statement is line in with her insistence upon a policy of “zero tolerance” for unethical behavior by members of the House. Yet the bipartisan committee usually has served as a rug under which accusations are swept. The committee, as it is, has a full workload, rotating leadership and members who frequently apply double standards to the cases before them.
In the case of Cardenas, the committee’s code precludes an investigation because the alleged incident occurred too many years ago. The pertinent rule states:
The Committee shall not consider a complaint, nor shall any investigation be undertaken by the Committee, of any alleged violation which occurred before the third previous Congress unless the Committee determines that the alleged violation is directly related to an alleged violation which occurred in a more recent Congress.
The committee clearly lacks jurisdiction here. Congressman Cardenas’ alleged assault occurred in 2007, several years before the three-term cutoff point. Moreover, no allegations have emerged subsequent to the incident during his tenure in the House, which began in January 2013.
In this light, Nancy Pelosi’s insistence upon an investigation rings hollow. Having formerly served on the House Ethics Committee for seven years, she is fully aware of this rule. Her response is that the committee has “discretion” to go back in time further than rules allow. “There is some precedent for going back further,” she told reporters at the Capitol, though without getting specific. It’s hard to see how Cardenas in particular would qualify as an exception, given that the allegation refers to something that happened more than a half-decade before he even arrived in Congress. Moreover, for the committee to change the rule, the full House would have to approve such action.
House Minority Leader Pelosi in effect is assuming zero risk, condemning behavior highly unlikely to result in any punishment. Rules aside, House Ethics Committee probes rarely produce sanctions. During the previous four Congresses, the committee examined just two cases of sexual misconduct, those of Reps. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., and Blake Farenthold, R-Tex. In the case of Hastings, the committee, following a two-year investigation, concluded there was insufficient evidence of rule violations. In the case of Farenthold, the committee had not finished its work of more than a year when he and the accuser, a former staffer, settled out of court.
Pelosi, moreover, has a way of shifting the goalposts on this issue. In other words, she adjusts her response in accordance with political expediency. Last November she initially called for an ethics investigation into Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., whom she defended as an “icon” who was “entitled to due process,” but then called for his resignation four days later. The 88-year-old Conyers had been accused in sworn affidavits by several former female staffers of sexual harassment. Compare this with her comments about allegations of sexual harassment against President Donald Trump and then-candidate for U.S. senator from Alabama Roy Moore. In each case, she insisted that we know all we need to know about the accused, calling Moore a “child molester.” For Nancy Pelosi, is the issue less about sexual harassment than about winning and maintaining partisan political advantage?
Tom Anderson is Director of NLPC’s Government Integrity Project.