WASHINGTON - Nearly three years after Congress approved sweeping ethics rules to "drain the swamp," as incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, no member of Congress has been punished for wrongdoing.
In that time, allegations of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety have been lodged against lawmakers. The most serious rebuke in the past year: a "letter of qualified admonition" to Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., after the Senate ethics panel concluded he misled lawmakers and inappropriately offered to raise campaign funds for then-governor Rod Blagojevich as Burris sought the Senate appointment. "Three years later, it's the same old, same old," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in January 2007 and quickly approved ethics rules that barred lawmakers from taking gifts or meals from lobbyists and their clients. The action came largely in response to the scandal of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to providing gifts to public officials in exchange for favors.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said lawmakers are held to the "highest ethical standard" and pointed to the independent Office of Congressional Ethics as one example.
The office, authorized in March 2008, vets complaints and sends them to the House ethics committee for final action. It launched 25 investigations during the first nine months of 2009, the most recent data available. Nine were sent on to the ethics committee for further action.
The committee has acknowledged 10 pending cases, including an inquiry into Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and whether he failed to disclose rental income and improperly solicited donations for a public service center named in his honor. Spokesman Emile Milne said Rangel "looks forward to the conclusion of the review he himself requested."
Although the ethics committee has not taken any disciplinary action, Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21 praised the independent office.
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House ethics panel, declined comment since the panel's work is confidential. Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for Senate ethics chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said, "There are always going to be those who criticize our work" but the committee is doing its job.