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One Mystery Solved: Suspended Ethics Attorney Finds Home With GOP

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Kim and another attorney on the case, Stacey Sovereign, were placed on indefinite administrative leave from the Ethics Committee in November amid charges and counter charges that they mishandled the Waters case, and after crossing swords with the then-Democratic leadership of the panel over just how hard and broadly to pursue the case against Waters.

The fate of the pair of lawyers, as well as the case against Waters, has remained in limbo every since and is leading to partisan tensions and bad blood between Republicans led by Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Al), who now chairs the ethics panel, and Democrats on the panel spilling over into the new Congress.

Now that the Natural Resources Committee has hired Kim, the Ethics Committee has removed one lingering problem, and Kim can escape the epicenter of the partisan storm. Sources said Sovereign had also resigned from the panel, leaving for greener -- or at least -- more pleasant pastures but did not say where or if she had landed.

Earlier this week, TPM reported that Kim had applied for a job as Broward County inspector general, according to a list of applicants compiled by the Sun-Sentinel. Apparently, she has decided to stick around on Capitol Hill at least for the short term.

But Kim's hire by the Natural Resources Committee has done nothing to ease Democratic concerns. That panel is chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who long-term ethics observers will remember was installed by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) in 2005 as the Ethics Committee chairman after Hastert cleaned House and ousted Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO).

Hefley had angered Hastert and other Republicans when the panel publicly admonished then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for a series of ethics violations, and Democrats viewed Hastings as the man installed to do the GOP leadership's bidding.

This is not the first time Hastings has taken in an Ethics Committee staffer. For the last few years, Hastings and the Natural Resources Committee has employed Todd Ungerecht as either a personal staffer for Hastings or a Natural Resources committee aide at the same time Ungerecht was serving as a ranking member's counsel to the Ethics Committee.

Ungerecht has served the two masters since February 2007 when Hastings still chaired the panel, according to House employment records on www.legistorm.com. Sometime last year, he was replaced by Kelle Strickland, who worked for Bonner's personal office before joining the ethics committee full-time.

At first, Ungerecht earned the vast majority of his salary from the Ethics Committee, but that ratio has flipped in the last year to the Natural Resources Committee or Hastings doling out the lion's share of his $155,000 pay. Of that amount, the ethics panel paid roughly one third last year, with Hastings and the Natural Resources Committee picking up the rest.

Committees and House offices can share staffers and many do. It is routine for the top counsels for the ranking member of the Ethics Committee to receive a portion of their salaries from the ranking member's personal office and the rest from the ethics panel.

But the Ethics Committee is the only panel in which most staffers are considered non-partisan, unlike the Natural Resources Committee where Democrats and Republicans regularly clash on environmental and other divisive issues. The dual role on a partisan committee and the Ethics Comeittee poses conflict-of-interest issues or at least raise questions about his ability to pivot to a nonpartisan setting, Democratic aides said.

Last year, Ungerecht served as counsel to Hastings in his role as the ranking member of the investigative subcommittee that looked into the case against Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) for 21 months, eventually charging Rangel with 13 violations for a string of ethics rule infractions. After months of Rangel publicly trying to beat back the allegations, the full House censured him in early December.

Upon learning of his role during that same time as a Natural Resources Committee staffer, one Democratic aide questioned his ability to remain impartial in the case.

"I don't understand how you can serve as a senior counsel on a very partisan committee at the same time you're investigating a case against a very senior Democrat ...," the Democratic staffer told TPM. "There's no way you can remain impartial. It makes no sense to me."

The Natural Resources Committee now lists Ungerecht as director of Northwest energy and environmental policy and senior counsel.

A Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman said she could not immediately answer TPM's questions because they involved personnel issues.

Hastings first hired Kim during his tenure as chairman of the panel, and she served as the lead investigator on the House page scandal of late 2006 before leaving for a stint at the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General. In late December 2009, the panel hired her back as deputy chief counsel, but this time under the leadership of Democratic Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).

Democrats say Kim's decision to take the job with Hastings also shows her partisan GOP loyalties, which they claim played a role in her aggressive pursuit of the Waters case. Another source close to the committee argues Kim and Sovereign were simply acting as hard-charging prosecutors determined to press the case as far as it could go.

Kim's partisan loyalties were questioned after Bonner, then the ranking member, intervened in November and prevented the two from being fired. There was never a public explanation of the complaints against Kim and Sovereign or any subsequent investigation.

Partisan tensions between Bonner and Lofgren were running so high during the feud over Kim and Sovereign late last year that Bonner had an armed Capitol Policeman standing watch at the Committee's front door during the entire week of Thanksgiving so no one could remove any internal committee correspondence or documents. Staffers for the panel were told not to come to work, one source said.

After Republicans won the majority, Lofgren resigned from the panel, but the bad blood between Democrats and Republicans remains and threatens to keep the committee's activities in limbo as the new top Democrat on the panel, Linda Sanchez (D-CA), decides just how far to dig in her heels regarding Kim and Sovereign and the future of Waters' case.

Bonner and Sanchez have so far remained mum on how they plan to handle the Waters case after a such a rocky time for the panel.

Waters is accused of intervening on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband owns stock and on whose board he'd previously sat. She has mounted a vigorous, detailed defense, arguing she was acting on behalf of all minority-owned banks, as she has done for other minority interests for years, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight it through a legal defense fund.

An hour and a half after TPM reported Kim's hire Friday morning, Hastings announced that she is his first hire for the Natural Resources's newly created Office of Oversight and Investigations.

From Hastings' release: "The Office of Oversight and Investigations will be comprised of multiple staff with varied and relevant experience as attorneys, investigators and subject matter experts on issues under the Committee's broad jurisdiction."

"The first hire for the Office is Morgan Kim, who will help lead the Committee's efforts to examine the actions and decisions of the Department of the Interior, other agencies and entities under the Committee's purview."

"Kim was recruited to join the Committee's oversight staff based on her experience as a nonpartisan investigator and prosecutor for the Department of Justice Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the House Ethics Committee. She departed from her position as Deputy Chief Counsel and Director of Investigations and Enforcement at the Ethics Committee on Friday, March 4th and began work with the Natural Resources Committee this week."

"'Conducting oversight of the Administration and issues under the Committee's jurisdiction is one of Chairman Hastings' top priorities and this newly established Office of Oversight and Investigations will ensure that it is done in a thoughtful and thorough manner,'" said Natural Resources Committee Chief of Staff Todd Young."'Chairman Hastings worked with Morgan Kim while serving as the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Ethics Committee and was impressed by her professionalism and ability to conduct non-partisan investigations - particularly her work as the lead investigator on the House Page inquiry. She is a valuable addition to our Committee's staff.'"