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Ethics probe? Not in their House

Kate Riley

Where is the House of Representatives ethics probe of the suspiciously over-the-line attempts by House members to influence U.S. attorneys in politically charged cases?

Don't hold your breath. While the Senate ethics committee jumped on an investigation of a New Mexico Republican senator's inappropriate pressure on a since-fired U.S. attorney, its House counterpart apparently is still sitting back on its heels.

Two of the eight fired U.S. attorneys, including Seattle's John McKay, dropped a few bombshells at a meeting with Seattle Times journalists last week. The seasoned prosecutors, who know a case when they see one, predicted criminal charges will come out of investigations of top agency and White House officials. The episode casts serious doubt on the leadership of the U.S. Justice Department and provokes questions about whether White House officials and other politicos flouted the Maginot Line between justice-seeking and political-maneuvering.

David Iglesias, who was fired as U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, said staff members of the Senate Ethics Committee already interviewed him about Sen. Pete Domenici's inquiry into whether indictments in a public corruption case would be filed before the next election. Iglesias, who said he felt "pressured" by the call, said he expects to testify behind closed doors to the committee soon.

But neither he nor McKay, fired from his Western Washington District post, have been contacted by the House ethics committee.

Each man received highly irregular calls from House members' offices about cases with political aspects. Congresswoman Heather Wilson, R-N.M., called Iglesias and asked about "sealed indictments" — something highly confidential — in the same New Mexico case.

The chief of staff for Rep. Doc Hastings called McKay to inquire about his office's action in Washington's razor-tight, controversial 2004 gubernatorial election. Iglesias and McKay each demurred in the conversations. Both said such contacts were verboten and could compromise the credibility-building practice of shielding the workings of the Justice Department from politics. McKay was concerned enough to call in senior staff to weigh whether the incident should be reported.

So here we are, two months after the prosecutors, under subpoena, revealed to Congress these inappropriate phone calls. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington formally asked both the Senate and House ethics committees to probe all three incidents. The Senate acted almost immediately on CREW's complaint.

Different rules, written and unwritten, apply in the House. The ethics committee — formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — does not act on outside complaints like CREW's. It acts on member complaints or outside complaints forwarded by members.

Interestingly, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called for a House ethics investigation soon after the revelation. Nice sound bite, but he apparently has not filed a complaint of his own. Now, that would be real leadership.

The House ethics committee also can initiate its own investigation. That's not likely either, considering Hastings continues as ranking Republican on the committee split evenly with five Democrats and five Republicans.

Even though the Democrats have taken over control of the House, the ethics committee, notoriously indolent under Republican control, including Hastings' chairmanship, appears hopelessly stuck.

A spokeswoman for new ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, referred a query to the committee's chief counsel. The chief counsel said the committee does not comment or even reveal if an investigation is ongoing.

Hmmm. I hope saying nothing is not the same as continuing to do nothing.

Only once in the past 10 years has a member of Congress filed a complaint against a fellow member. As former Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay wrote in his recent book, Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, broke "the seven-year gentlemen's agreement" not to use ethics charges as political tools. The other version is that Bell decided finally to hold Delay, who is now under state indictment in Texas, accountable for egregious actions.

When the Democrats took over control of the House, leadership promised ethics enforcement would improve. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appointed a bipartisan Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement, chaired by Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass. A spokeswoman for the task force referred inquiries back to the ethics committee.

Sigh. Isn't this fun?

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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