San Diego Union Tribune

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Ethics probe, we think

December 17, 2007

During the most recent session of Congress, the House ethics committee investigated at least four congressmen, as well as the Mark Foley page scandal.

While the allegations were plenty serious – conspiracy, taking bribes, violating election laws, making sexual overtures to minors – the committee took very little serious action.

So it's a safe bet that Rep. Bob Filner doesn't need to sweat about facing the committee now that he has pleaded to a mere trespassing charge.

House rules call for the ethics committee to investigate any member indicted or arrested on criminal charges. So the House in September created a panel to investigate Filner's alleged assault and battery Aug. 19 on United Airlines employee Joanne Kunkel. Kunkel said the San Diego Democrat screamed and pushed past her to find his delayed luggage at Dulles International Airport. The panel put off any inquiry until after the court proceedings.

Now that Filner has entered what amounts to a no-contest plea on a reduced charge of trespassing – and written Kunkel a court-ordered apology – one guesses the panel is hard at work on the matter.

BUT WE CAN ONLY GUESS

Neither the committee nor its investigative panel is obligated to divulge whether deliberations are under way, when they started or when they might end. They don't have to disclose what they deliberated about. And if the matter doesn't call for the next step in the House ethics process – a “statement of alleged violation,” which then can lead to a trial-like adjudicative hearing – the committee isn't obliged to tell me or you that an investigation ever took place.


 

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In fact, it apparently was a mere courtesy on the committee's part that it let us know it was investigating Filner's conduct at all.

Given that the committee's last adjudicative hearing was in the case of James Traficant of Ohio more than five years ago – on conspiracy, obstruction-of-justice, racketeering and tax-evasion convictions that led to a House expulsion – it seems a long shot that there will be such a hearing on Filner's trespassing charge.

The committee does keep a “Historical Summary of Conduct Cases,” which tells you about the Traficant and other egregious cases. It also includes a tart disclaimer that tells us that the summary “does not contain matters not publicly disclosed by the committee,” and that it only discusses matters “publicly acknowledged by the committee in which the committee or the House has taken action.”

 

CODE OF CONDUCT, NOT

Now if you pay close attention, you might discover what the committee did about the Filner matter in January 2009, when the panel must publish a “Summary of Activities” for the 110th Congress. But you'll have to pay really close attention, because the summary doesn't have to include descriptions of what was investigated.

The committee came out with a “Summary of Activities” in January that covered the 109th Congress. The committee investigated Reps. James McDermott, D-Wash., and William Jefferson, D-La., as well as former Reps. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, and Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The allegations against these gentlemen involved conspiracy, taking bribes and violating election laws, to name a few.

Ney and DeLay resigned, freeing the committee of jurisdiction over them. Jefferson's case is pending. As for allegations that McDermott violated House ethics standards by leaking to the media details of a phone conversation about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the committee decided to do nothing, even though it agreed that McDermott didn't act consistently “with the spirit of the committee's rules.”

The committee also examined whether House members and staffers knew – and did nothing – about resigned Rep. Mark Foley's penchant for sending young House pages sexually explicit e-mails. The panel concluded that although some members and staffers knew of the Florida Republican's conduct and “did not take responsive action – or acted with insufficient diligence or oversight” – none of this conduct “was sufficient to establish a violation of any provision of the House Code of Official Conduct.”

Bet that left pages' parents happy.