WASHINGTON - The resignations last week of two Republican House members from their sensitive committee assignments have thrust lingering legal and ethics issues back into the limelight, potentially complicating GOP efforts to retake Congress next year.On successive days, Wednesday and Thursday, Reps. John Doolittle, of California, and Rick Renzi, of Arizona, disclosed FBI raids, proclaiming their innocence but exposing their legal jeopardy.
The announcements were the most recent in a series of developments that have kept the focus on old ethical and legal clouds that helped chase the Republican Party from power on Capitol Hill.
Among those developments, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., faces a possible ethics investigation amid accusations that she pressured now-fired U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to indict New Mexico Democrats before last year's fall elections.
Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif., under investigation by the FBI for a series of land deals, is facing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ads alleging he lied about a land sale that he declined to pay taxes on. Footage shows Miller repeatedly pleading with Monrovia, Calif., officials to buy 165 acres of his property. Miller made more than $10 million off the 2002 sale, but he sheltered the profits from capital-gains taxes by claiming the sale was forced under threat of eminent domain.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., faces FBI scrutiny of his work as House Appropriations Committee chairman, and his campaign filings this month showed he has racked up $892,951.69 since July in legal fees.
And for the first time, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., reported significant legal fees - $15,620.60 - in his campaign filing this month, as he tries to stave off accusations that he used taxpayer-funded congressional staff members and resources to do political work.
"Everybody's kind of a little bit numb," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "There's this 'what else can happen now?' feeling going around here."
Doolittle had been trying to retool his battered image when he disclosed that the FBI had raided his family's Northern Virginia home. He and his wife have been tied to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he has admitted obtaining funds for a defense contractor linked to the bribery conviction of then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.
Under pressure from GOP leaders, Doolittle quickly gave up his coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee while his lawyers said he had done nothing wrong.
Renzi notified House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that federal investigators had raided the offices of Renzi's wife's business, Patriot Insurance Agency, in Sonoita, Ariz. The search was part of an investigation into Renzi-drafted land-swap legislation that would have enriched a political benefactor. Renzi stepped down from his seat on the House Intelligence Committee "to avoid any unnecessary distractions on the panel and its critical work," Boehner said.
"I view these actions as the first step in bringing out the truth," Renzi said.
Democrats also have issues. An aide in the New Orleans office of Rep. William Jefferson, of Louisiana, was subpoenaed last week to testify before the grand jury investigating corruption and bribery allegations. Earlier this year, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Commerce and Justice departments, was forced to recuse himself from law-enforcement funding matters because he is under FBI investigation.
Ethics troubles loomed large last year in the Democrats' sweep of Congress. Republicans lost seats in eight states where ethical lapses were key issues.
And Democrats will use the new ethics charges to remind voters why they turned the GOP out, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the DCCC chairman.
"It's all a stark reminder to voters about why they don't want to turn power back to a Republican Congress that betrayed the public and used their majority for personal financial gain and to reward special interests," he said.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), was less troubled. The Democrats' theme of "a culture of corruption" is unlikely to break through to voters in a presidential election year with so much at stake, he said. And cases coming into focus in early 2007 will likely be resolved by fall 2008.
"There's a long time between now and the election," he said.
But Cole conceded ethics could be a factor in a few individual races. And the GOP already needs 17 seats to recapture the House.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company