June 16, 1997
Honorable Robert Livingston, Co-Chairman
Honorable Benjamin Cardin, Co-Chairman
House Ethics Reform Task Force
U. S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
RE: House Ethics Reform Task Force report
Dear Representatives Livingston and Cardin:
The House Ethics Reform Task Force report will undermine efforts to identify, investigate, and punish corruption, influence-peddling and abuse of power in the House of Representatives. We strongly urge you to rework the Task Force report to strengthen -- not weaken -- the capacity of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct ("Ethics Committee") to investigate House Members to determine whether they have violated the public trust.
The Ethics Committee is responsible for policing Members for violations of House Rules, federal law, and other applicable codes of conduct. It must investigate possible violations with diligence and punish wrongdoers, if the ethics process is to protect the public and our democracy.
During the 104th Congress, the House ethics process nearly collapsed. The Ethics Committee became moribund -- a shield for Members to hide behind, not a vigorous enforcer of House Rules. Among the Ethics Committee's problems were:
Procedural barriers that prevented or delayed the filing of ethics complaints;
Investigative failures and incompetence;
Failure to authorize outside counsel to investigate ethics complaints;
Failure to punish repeat offenders against House Rules;
Unwillingness of the Ethics Committee to receive evidence;
Failure to initiate investigations; and
Improper "horse-trading" and linking of unrelated ethics matters.
Following this abysmal performance, the House Majority and Minority leaders appointed the Ethics Reform Task Force, and gave it a broad mandate to devise an ethics process that better serves the American people and our democracy. This was a splendid opportunity to restore public confidence in the Congress.
But the Task Force wasted the opportunity from the start. Incredibly, the Task Force hired Richard Leon as counsel,(1) even though Leon is also counsel to Ann Eppard, a top transportation lobbyist, in an ongoing Justice Department investigation. Eppard is a close associate of House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, and a central figure in the Congressional Accountability Project's ethics complaint against Chairman Shuster.(2) Procedures proposed by Leon would likely affect the ethics case against Chairman Shuster.
The Task Force has conducted nearly all of its meetings in secret, which is unacceptable in a democracy. It is particularly outrageous since the Task Force is rewriting rules that protect the public from corrupt Members. To our knowledge, the Task Force has met only once in public. Back-room dealing creates the impression that the Task Force is serving the interests of powerful Members who wish to gain effective immunity from ethics investigations.
Following the deplorable secrecy of the Task Force's deliberations, the Task Force should conduct at least one public hearing to solicit public comments on its report. Co-Chairman Benjamin Cardin has requested such a hearing. His request should be granted.
In testimony(3) for the Task Force, we documented myriad failings of the House ethics process during the 104th Congress, and suggested four remedies:
Send ethics complaints routinely to outside counsel for investigation;
Eliminate unnecessary delays in the initial phases of the ethics process;
Eliminate barriers that prevent citizens from directly filing ethics complaints; and
Punish Members who break House ethics rules.
The Task Force rejected these remedies almost entirely. We testified that the House ethics process requires the routine presence of trustworthy, independent investigators to restore its damaged credibility. This was, by far, the most important reform, but the Task Force dismissed it. Instead, the Task Force has advanced proposals that will further shield Members from Ethics Committee scrutiny.
The Task Force suggests restricting Americans from filing ethics complaints by specifically excluding news accounts as grounds for a complaint -- even though many 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 Chairman Shuster. The exclusion of news accounts from citizen complaints would be an appalling new barrier to accountability.
To further shield Members from scrutiny, the Task Force suggests eliminating an important provision allowing citizens to file ethics complaints with letters of refusal from three Members. Under Ethics Committee Rule 14, non-Members may file an ethics complaint only with a letter of transmittal from a Member or three letters of refusal from Members. 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. We used this provision to file complaints against House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster. Without this provision, we could not have filed complaints against either Chairman Shuster or House Majority Whip DeLay.
We testified that the House should adopt the Senate Rule that allows non-Members to file directly with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics without restriction. This is the best policy for assuring accountability and public confidence. It has served the Senate well. But the Task Force chose to reject the Senate Rule in favor of insulating Members from ethics investigations.
The Task Force would raise the standard of proof for issuing a Statement of Alleged Violation. The current standard is "reason to believe that a violation has occurred." The proposed standard would require "substantial reason to believe," which would be a higher and unjustifiable hurdle in the adjudication of House ethics cases.
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.
In sum, the Task Force's proposals are inadequate, and need major overhauling. We understand that some members of the Task Force supported proposals to strengthen the Ethics Committee's ability to enforce federal law and House Rules. Unfortunately, those proposals were not retained in the Task Force report. Instead, the Task Force proposes rules that serve the narrow interests of career politicians in the House of Representatives, not the broader interests of the American people.
2. Correspondence to House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct Chairwoman Nancy Johnson from Gary Ruskin, Congressional Accountability Project, September 5, 1996.
3. Testimony of Gary Ruskin, Congressional Accountability Project, before the House Ethics Reform Task Force, March 4, 1997.