San Diego Union Tribune

December 1, 2005

Bribery case shows House panel laxness, critics claim

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – For months, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was the focus of highly public federal investigations, and this week pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges.

Throughout, the House ethics committee, which is supposed to look into wrongdoing of members, has been silent.

Critics say that is typical of the committee: a panel embroiled in political gamesmanship that has left it unable to do its job.

"It has been moribund for quite a while," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "Duke Cunningham's situation is a classic example of what they should have been looking at."

"But they have been ineffective in the past, and they have curled up and done nothing for the past couple of years," Noble said.

On Monday, Cunningham, a Rancho Santa Fe Republican, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego and tearfully confessed to taking $2.4 million in bribes.

Five months ago, as the scope of the federal investigation into Cunningham's conduct became clear, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called for the House ethics committee to launch an investigation.

Under House rules, an outside person or agency isn't allowed to make an ethics complaint. So the group shopped around among members of Congress to see if someone was interested in filing a complaint against Cunningham. No one was.

The panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, barely shrugged.

"There was a guy clearly involved in bribery. But we've learned that going after House members is a waste of time," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the citizens group.

"We say there's a lot of talk about ethics with all the scandals going around, but there is no effective oversight. There are rules that exist and no one is enforcing them," said Mike Surrusco, assistant director of research for Common Cause, the political watchdog group.

The ethics committee has been in political paralysis for several years as congressional leaders have called a truce in investigating one another, critics say. The committee has done little work and has only recently named a counsel after nearly a year without one.

The committee has five Democrats and five Republicans and is led by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Committee officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Some advocates say a vigorous ethics committee is needed more than ever at a time of increasing scandals involving Congress.

Concerned about the extent of Cunningham's criminal misconduct, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, on Tuesday urged Speaker Dennis Hastert, D-Ill., to create a bipartisan House committee to investigate Cunningham's role involving national security matters. Cunningham has seats on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the defense appropriations subcommittee.

One of the most highly publicized criminal investigations involves Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was forced to step down as House majority leader when he was indicted in Texas for alleged violations of campaign finance laws.

Moreover, a sweeping Justice Department investigation involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff involves at least one congressman and other public officials linked to bribery charges. Prosecutors reportedly told Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, that they are preparing a possible bribery case against him. Ney's office has not commented on the reports.

Since the conclusion of ethics investigations involving former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997, both parties have largely avoided such probes. At that time, the Republican-led committee changed the rules so that only members of Congress could file ethics complaints.

There have been only a few dents in the truce.

The ethics committee launched an investigation into whether Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., used members of his staff for political campaigning during congressional work hours last year, but the probe has been effectively on hold.

Last year, when Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, filed a complaint against DeLay, it prompted the committee to admonish DeLay. But more important, say critics, the complaint prompted the committee to make it more difficult to tackle ethics violations. Bell was defeated in a re-election bid last year after a redistricting that DeLay helped engineer.

Hastert has "completely emasculated" the committee, removing several diligent members, said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

"Now we have an ethics committee that has gone through this entire Congress being nonfunctioning," Ornstein said.

Keeping anyone outside the House from initiating a complaint has resulted in a process that "has careened out of control," Ornstein said.

A watchdog press is necessary to fill the void, he said.

The Cunningham investigation was launched after a June 12 Copley News Service story in The San Diego Union-Tribune about the congressman's sale of his house to a defense contractor.

"Not only might he have gotten away with it, he might have accumulated millions more while directing other contracts," Ornstein said.

Copley News Service bureau chief George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this report.

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