Ethics Committee (Finally) Staffs Up Amid Trial Delays

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Waters photoLast week's announcement by the House Ethics Committee that it is investigating Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a year after questions about his finances were in the headlines, has put the spotlight back on the Committee's ability to do its job.

The Committee recently hired 10 new and internal counsels, bumping their staff up to 23 members. But even with the beefed-up staff, the status of other, more high profile cases is still unknown.

It's taken about seven months for the Ethics Committee to hire new staffers since the chief counsel staff director resigned and two senior counsels were placed on administrative leave due to reported disagreements regarding Rep Maxine Waters' (D-Calif.) trial. The staff delays have been cited as a reason for the postponed trials of Waters and former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.).

Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) released a statement claiming that the 10 new appointees will permit the committee to proceed with its unfinished business:

These changes will enable the Committee to move forward with its duties.

The trials of Waters and Massa were shelved by the Ethics Committee over a year ago. Promptly after Massa's resignation, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) initially requested a final report on the scandal by June 30, 2010. The deadline was eventually pushed back to July 31, 2010 after an investigative subcommittee looked into media reports claiming then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) might have been aware of Massa's issues. 

Massa was accused of sexually harassing one of his male staffers; a final report on the scandal has yet to surface.

"The Ethics Committee is dragging its feet on all cases, and there seems to be a general reluctance to do its field of work," Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said. "The whole world is wondering how long it'll take the Ethics Committee to begin these trials. If the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) didn't exist, the trials would be postponed indefinitely. The OCE is critical for the Ethics Committee to resume its work. I think they will in the next month."

OCE is a separate entity from the Ethics Committee that was established in 2008. Composed of former members of Congress, it conducts investigations but can only refer possible violations to the Ethics Committee for action.

While Holman thinks the news of the committee's recent hiring is promising, others like Peter Flaherty, President of the National Legal and Policy Center, are not as optimistic. 

"We are heading into the summer doldrums and the Ethics Committee is only now announcing staff hirings? I worry that the House leadership has missed an opportunity to break with the ineffectiveness and partisanship that has characterized the Ethics Committee in recent years," Flaherty said.

"Last year, the PMA scandal was simply covered up. The Rangel and Waters trials were delayed until after the election for political reasons. Even after the Committee charged Rangel with thirteen violations of House Rules, the Committee's staff director said he saw 'no evidence of corruption,' echoing Nancy Pelosi," he continued. "The public wants Congress to clean up its act, but it looks like business as usual at the Ethics Committee." 

Dan Schwager, the House Ethics Committee staff director and chief council, said the committee is not commenting on specific matters.

Holman said Public Citizen has sent a couple of letters out of frustration, but they haven't received a response. Multiple watchdog groups including Public Citizen and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) intend on sending a new letter next week if the committee remains stagnant on the looming trials.

Kristen Byrne is NLPC's Capitol Hill Reporter

Related:

House Ethics Committee Investigating Rep. Gregory Meeks

Watchdog: We Were Right About Maxine Waters' Trial Delay