Watchdogs: Ethics Committee In Turmoil Over Partisan Staff

March 15, 2011 2:00 am

Government watchdogs are condemning a decision to allow a Republican office to become a safe haven for supposedly nonpartisan Ethics Committee staff, saying it’s one of the leading reasons why the panel is so dysfunctional.

The House Ethics Committee, led by Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), has virtually shut down amid partisan recriminations and staff sniping over last year’s handling of the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). Last week TPM reported that at least one of the panel’s attorneys who had been suspended for allegedly mishandling the case had soft-landed on the GOP side of the House Natural Resources Committee, run by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA).TPM also discovered that for the last several 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.

Even more troublingly, Ungerecht last year served as a senior GOP counsel on the Natural Resources panel while investigating the case against Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who the House censured for a string of misdeeds late last year.

“The notion that the ethics committee, which is supposed to be the one committee that is nonpartisan, would allow one of its employees to split his time with another partisan committee? I’m stunned,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

“I think this is crossing a line that is wholly unacceptable,” she added. “There’s no way that an ethics committee should be serving on a partisan committee…you’re setting the whole situation up to have reasonable claims of partisan motivation. The notion here that you can serve two masters is just wrong.”

The ongoing tensions and partisan jabs were on public display last night when a private letter in which Bonner accuses his Democratic predecessor, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA), of breaking House rules by trying to fire the two attorneys who worked on the Waters case was leaked to the Washington Post.

In the letter, according to the Post, Bonner said that Lofgren’s decision was unilateral and taken “without cause, in my view,” and that the two staffers – counsels Morgan Kim and Stacey Sovereign – had “acted appropriately and consistent with the highest ethical standards.”

The Post story was one of a series of leaks aimed at attacking Lofgren’s decision to suspend the attorneys, and watchdogs say the leaks constitute a grave violation of the committee’s confidentiality rules and professed non-partisan agenda but reveal just how dysfunctional the committee has become.

The Ethics Committee is the only panel in which most staffers are considered non-partisan. In fact, its rules regarding staff specifically call for “professional, nonpartisan staff,” according to a copy of the latest committee rules.

“The staff as a whole and each individual member of the staff shall perform all official duties in a nonpartisan manner,” the rules state.

The rules specifically allow the chair and ranking minority member to appoint one individual as a shared staff member “from the respective personal staff of the Chair or Ranking Minority Member to perform service for the Committee,” but the rules do not provide for shared staff with other panels.

Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said the partisan staff on both sides of the aisle have created serious problems for the panel.

“The staff are extremely partisan, and it’s causing serious problems on both sides of the aisle … as a result the House Ethics Committee has basically shut down,” he said.

Fortunately, Holman said, the Office of Congressional Ethics, a board made up of mainly former members of Congress, is still up and running and holding members of Congress accountable. The OCE can only conduct initial probes and make recommendations for further action to the full ethics panel, but because some of its actions eventually become public it has spurred the Ethics Committee to act on many cases since its creation in 2008.

“Fortunately, we still have an OCE up and running,” Holman said. “If the Ethics Committee ends up doing nothing, the public will be watching. At least now we’re going to know whether they are fulfilling their mandate. …”

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.

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