Ethics Investigators Probe Dozens in Congress

Published on
by
The Washington Post

Ethics Investigators Probe Dozens in Congress

by
Ellen Nakashima and Paul Kane

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., which has jurisdiction over Social Security in the House, is seen during a hearing of the committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009.(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

WASHINGTON - House ethics investigators have
been scrutinizing the activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several
aides in inquiries about issues including defense lobbying and
corporate influence peddling, according to a confidential House ethics
committee report prepared in July.

The
report appears to have been inadvertently placed on a publicly
accessible computer network, and it was provided to The Washington Post
by a source not connected to the congressional investigations. The
committee said Thursday night that the document was released by a
low-level staffer.

The ethics committee
is one of the most secretive panels in Congress, and its members and
staff members sign oaths not to disclose any activities related to its
past or present investigations. Watchdog groups have accused the
committee of not actively pursuing inquiries; the newly disclosed
document indicates the panel is conducting far more investigations than
it had revealed.

Shortly after 6 p.m.
Thursday, the committee chairman, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), interrupted a
series of House votes to alert lawmakers about the breach. She
cautioned that some of the panel's activities are preliminary and not a
conclusive sign of inappropriate behavior.

"No inference should be made as to any member," she said.

Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican, said the breach was an isolated incident.

The
22-page "Committee on Standards Weekly Summary Report" gives brief
summaries of ethics panel investigations of the conduct of 19 lawmakers
and a few staff members. It also outlines the work of the new Office of
Congressional Ethics, a quasi-independent body that initiates
investigations and provides recommendations to the ethics committee.
The document indicated that the office was reviewing the activities of
14 other lawmakers. Some were under review by both ethics bodies.

Ethics
committee investigations are not uncommon. Most result in private
letters that either exonerate or reprimand a member. In some rare
instances, the censure is more severe.

Campaign contributions Many
of the broad outlines of the cases cited in the July document are known
- the committee announced over the summer that it was reviewing
lawmakers with connections to the now-closed PMA Group, a lobbying
firm. But the document indicates that the inquiry was broader than
initially believed. It included a review of seven lawmakers on the
House Appropriations defense subcommittee who have steered federal
money to the firm's clients and have also received large campaign
contributions.

The document also disclosed that:

  • Ethics
    committee staff members have interviewed House Ways and Means Chairman
    Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) about one element of the complex
    investigation of his personal finances, as well as the lawmaker's top
    aide and his son. Rangel said he spoke with ethics committee staff
    members regarding a conference that he and four other members of the
    Congressional Black Caucus attended last November in St. Martin. The
    trip initially was said to be sponsored by a nonprofit foundation run
    by a newspaper. But the three-day event, at a luxury resort, was
    underwritten by major corporations such as Citigroup, Pfizer and
    AT&T. Rules passed in 2007, shortly after Democrats reclaimed the
    majority following a wave of corruption cases against Republicans, bar
    private companies from paying for congressional travel.
  • Rangel
    said he has not discussed other parts of the investigation of his
    finances with the committee. "I'm waiting for that, anxiously," he
    said.

  • The Justice Department has told
    the ethics panel to suspend a probe of Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.),
    whose personal finances federal investigators began reviewing in early
    2006 after complaints from a conservative group that he was not fully
    revealing his real estate holdings. There has been no public action on
    that inquiry for several years. But the department's request in early
    July to the committee suggests that the case continues to draw the
    attention of federal investigators, who often ask that the House and
    Senate ethics panels refrain from taking action against members whom
    the department is already investigating.
  • Mollohan
    said that he was not aware of any ongoing interest by the Justice
    Department in his case and that he and his attorneys have not heard
    from federal investigators. "The answer is no," he said.

  • The
    committee on June 9 authorized issuance of subpoenas to the Justice
    Department, the National Security Agency and the FBI for "certain
    intercepted communications" regarding Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). As
    was reported earlier this year, Harman was heard in a 2005 conversation
    agreeing to an Israeli operative's request to try to obtain leniency
    for two pro-Israel lobbyists in exchange for the agent's help in
    lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to name her chairman of
    the intelligence committee. The department, a former U.S. official
    said, declined to respond to the subpoena.
  • Harman
    said that the ethics committee has not contacted her and that she has
    no knowledge that the subpoena was ever issued. "I don't believe that's
    true," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, this smear has been over for
    three years."

    In June 2009, a Justice
    Department official wrote in a letter to an attorney for Harman that
    she was "neither a subject nor a target" of a criminal investigation.

     

    Because
    of the secretive nature of the ethics committee, it was difficult to
    assess the current status of the investigations cited in the July
    document. The panel said Thursday, however, that it is ending a probe
    of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) after finding no ethical violations, and
    that it is investigating the financial connections of two California
    Democrats.

    The committee did not detail
    the two newly disclosed investigations. However, according to the July
    document, Rep. Maxine Waters, a high-ranking member of the House
    Financial Services Committee, came under scrutiny because of activities
    involving OneUnited Bank of Massachusetts, in which her husband owns at
    least $250,000 in stock.

    Waters arranged
    a September 2008 meeting at the Treasury Department where OneUnited
    executives asked for government money. In December, Treasury selected
    OneUnited as an early participant in the bank bailout program,
    injecting $12.1 million.

    The other, Rep. Laura Richardson, may have failed to mention property, income and liabilities on financial disclosure forms.

    File-sharing networks The
    committee's review of investigations became available on file-sharing
    networks because of a junior staff member's use of the software while
    working from home, Lofgren and Bonner said in a statement issued
    Thursday night. The staffer was fired, a congressional aide said.

    The
    committee "is taking all appropriate steps to deal with this issue,"
    they said, noting that neither the committee nor the House's
    information systems were breached in any way.

    "Peer-to-peer"
    technology has previously caused inadvertent breaches of sensitive
    financial, defense-related and personal data from government and
    commercial networks, and it is prohibited on House networks.

    House
    administration rules require that if a lawmaker or staff member takes
    work home, "all users of House sensitive information must protect the
    confidentiality of sensitive information" from unauthorized disclosure.

    Leo Wise, chief counsel for the Office of
    Congressional Ethics, declined to comment, citing office policy against
    confirming or denying the existence of investigations. A Justice
    Department spokeswoman also declined to comment, citing a similar
    policy.

    Staff writers Carol D. Leonnig and Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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