For Immediate Release:
For More Information Contact:
Friday, September 12, 1997 Gary Ruskin (202) 296-2787
At a time when public confidence in Congress is low, the U. S. House of Representatives may soon weaken its own internal process for policing corruption -- which is already ineffective and discredited.
In February, following two years of turmoil in the House ethics process, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX) and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) appointed a Task Force to review the ethics process, co-chaired by Reps. Robert Livingston (R-LA) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). For the next seven months -- until yesterday -- the House enforced a moratorium on ethics investigations and the filing of ethics complaints.
On June 17, the Ethics Reform Task Force issued its report (H. Res. 168). If the Task Force's report is approved by the House of Representatives, it would undermine efforts to identify, investigate, and punish corruption, influence-peddling and abuse of power in the House of Representatives. It would likely lead to de facto non-enforcement of House ethics rules, and a climate where corruption would be increasingly possible.
The Task Force's report is business as usual. It mainly reflects the lobbying efforts of career politicians who wish to protect themselves from ethics scrutiny. It is the job of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct ("Ethics Committee") to provide this scrutiny -- to vigorously investigate possible violations and punish wrongdoers.
The Task Force report could come to the House floor as early as next week. The Task Force recommendations would do nothing to redress the egregious weaknesses in the House ethics process. In fact, it would make them worse. The House should reject this report.
During the 104th Congress, the House Ethics Committee maintained a policy of liberal permissiveness toward House Members. It too often acted as a shield for Members to hide behind, instead of diligently enforcing House Rules. The Ethics Committee's worst problems were:
Four principal reforms are needed to repair the House ethics process:
"The task force seems not to have absorbed the main lesson of the Gingrich
case, which is the value of using independent fact-finders to investigate
complaints as a way to lessen the partisan logjams and the political and
personal pressures members face when judging their peers." ("The House
Ethics Moratorium," New York Times, June 8, 1997.)
"The current House ethics process does not simply need fine tuning. It needs major revisions, particularly an enhanced role for an independent, outside presence. The Task Force's proposed revisions will not correct a flawed process, and several flatly go in the wrong direction, further damaging the ethics process." (Letter from Common Cause President Ann McBride to Representatives Livingston and Cardin, June 10, 1997.)
The Task Force Report Will Make It Harder For Americans to File Ethics Complaints
The Task Force proposes an outrageous new restriction on the ability
of citizens' to file ethics complaints. It would specifically exclude
news accounts as grounds for a citizen complaint -- even though most recent
ethics cases were first brought to light by news accounts. Those
cases include: former Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX), former Senator Bob Packwood
(R-OR), House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), former Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins
(D-MI), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX), and House Transportation
Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-PA).
Imagine if the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post were all to publish accounts of wrongdoing by a House Member. If there were no documents available, nor witnesses willing to describe the wrongdoing, then citizens would be excluded from directly filing a House ethics complaint. Such an outcome would be unacceptable.
To further protect Members from scrutiny, the Task Force suggests eliminating an important provision enabling citizens to file ethics complaints with "letters of refusal" from three Members. Currently, citizens may file an ethics complaint in one of two ways: either they can get a "letter of transmittal" from a Member or they can get three "letters of refusal" from three Members refusing to transmit. Since Members are usually afraid to provide a "letter of transmittal" against a powerful colleague, and the Ethics Committee is disinclined to initiate its own investigations, the "letters of refusal" provision is particularly important for holding powerful Members to account. The Congressional Accountability Project used this provision to file complaints against Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Chairman Bud Shuster.
"The task force wants to prohibit filing complaints by three letters of refusal. This would almost certainly prevent investigations, because ...members will readily write letters saying they have no intention of accusing a colleague, but they are usually unwilling to make a charge directly on a letter of transmittal." ("Congress Votes Itself A Police Holiday." Fresno Bee, August 29, 1997.)
The Task Force Was Damaged by a Major Conflict of Interest
Incredibly, the Special Counsel to the ethics Task Force was also an attorney representing the subject of an ethics complaint involving a powerful Member of Congress. The Task Force hired Richard Leon as its Special Counsel, even though Leon is also counsel to top transportation lobbyist Ann Eppard. In Boston, federal prosecutors are investigating Chairman Bud Shuster's ties to Eppard. Although Eppard is a lobbyist, she also acts as Chairman Shuster's Washington fund-raiser, political aide, press aide, and special interest liaison. She is also a central figure in the Congressional Accountability Project's ethics complaint against Chairman Shuster.
"Washington is renowned as a city full of lawyers. So how come the task force charged with writing new rules for the House's troubled ethics committee hired as its outside counsel a lawyer with a clear conflict of interest?....[Richard Leon's] role as Eppard's lawyer involves him in an unacceptable conflict-of-interest as counsel to the task force....Leon 'should not be involved in writing the rules,' said Monroe Freedman, a legal ethics professor at Hofstra University. æIt is a classic conflict of interest, and reasonable people can question his impartiality.'" ("Counsel Conflict." Roll Call, March 10, 1997)
"In another indication of what ethics reform might really mean, the House task force has hired Richard Leon, lobbyist Eppard's attorney, as its counsel. Just who will Leon be representing on the task force -- the American public or Ann Eppard?" ("House Ethics Reform A Secretive Ruse." Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, June 3, 1997.)
The Task Force Report Could Be Used To Dismiss æSerious' Complaints Against Shuster and DeLay
"...serious ethics complaints against two powerful Republicans -- Tom DeLay, the majority whip, and Bud Shuster, the Transportation Committee chairman -- have been left festering..." ("The House Ethics Moratorium." New York Times, June 8, 1997.)
"What is particularly disturbing about the charges against both Shuster and DeLay is that they involve the most pernicious form of political corruption. These are not your run-of-the-mill tax evasion or petty theft cases. Instead the two men are accused of the kind of quid pro quo that most fundamentally threatens our democracy: the exchange of money and friendship for legislative influence." ("Breaking the Rules." Washington Monthly, June 1997.)
If the House approves the Task Force report, then the pending ethics complaints against Majority Whip DeLay and Chairman Shuster could be dismissed without investigation, because they would no longer meet the new standard for complaints. Both complaints are based almost entirely on news accounts from respected news outlets such as Roll Call, Journal of Commerce, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Under the Task Force's proposed rules, it would likely be very difficult or impossible to refile these complaints.
The Task Force Report May Shield House Members from Scrutiny Regarding Corruption
The Task Force report suggests vesting too much authority in the Chair and Ranking Member of the Ethics Committee to dismiss complaints, without recourse for appeal. The Chair and Ranking Member could easily abuse this authority to dismiss complaints against Members -- especially powerful ones -- even when the Ethics Committee has strong evidence of wrongdoing.
"Common Cause legislative director Meredith McGehee said the [Task Force] proposal is æjust going in the absolute wrong direction....This group is going to have to be careful because they are quickly going from what was supposed to be reform to de-form in what was already a tainted process.'" ("Congressional Watchdog Groups Up In Arms Over Ethics Reform Proposal." Roll Call, May 29, 1997.)
For more information about the House Ethics Reform Task Force, call (202) 296-2787 or visit the Congressional Accountability Project's web page at <http://www.essential.org/orgs/CAP/CAP.html>.