Ethics Panel Probing Homeland Security Committee’s Ties To Lobbyists

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Did Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the chair of the Homeland Security committee, hold hearings on identity theft with the goal of scaring credit-card companies into making political donations? That charge is at the heart of a set of issues being investigated by the House Ethics committee, reports the Washington Post.

Last March, Thompson held hearings on whether credit-card companies should be forced to bolster security in order to protect customers from identity theft — something the companies oppose.Some former Thompson staff members told the Post that, in their view, Thompson held the hearings in order to encourage the card companies to make donations to his campaign. The hearings produced no legislation, but in the following donations, Thompson received $15,000 in donations from credit-card companies and their lobbyists, including from Visa, American Express, MasterCard, and the political action committee for the American Bankers Association.

The issue is unquestionably legitimate. Credit-card companies currently have little incentive to adopt tighter security measures, since consumers, not the companies, pay the lion’s share of the costs. Still, the Homeland Security committee has never focused on credit cards before, and a Common Cause official, in an interview with the Post, questioned whether the matter should be a top priority for the panel.

Both Thompson and his top committee aide, Lanier Avant, who is said by the Post to have played a key role in setting up the hearings, have denied that they were held in order to gin up donations. Said Thompson: “We do hearings all the time — sometimes we are able to generate legislation earlier, and sometimes we have to [build] a public record.” Avant told Politico that the committee’s oversight work is “totally separate” from Thompson’s political and fund-raising activities.

The Ethics committee is also said to be investigating other ways in which the committee may have given improper consideration to lobbyists and contractors friendly to Thompson.
The probe reportedly was triggered this summer when a former committee aide, Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, charged that she had been fired after complaining to her bosses about inappropriate requests made by lobbyists to staff members. At least 10 staff members have left the committee this year, and some told the Post the departures came after they objected to committee operations.

Current or former staff members have also raised concerns about a hearing held by the committee with the goal of helping minority contractors get DHS contracts, at which companies were given a chance to tout their products. Some staffers felt the hearing seemed like an advertisement for the companies.

And at another hearing, held in July and focused on FEMA housing for disaster victims,
three of the witnesses were contractors who testified about the value of their shelters. Within a few weeks of the event, Thompson had received donations from people connected to two of those companies.

What does this all amount to? Much of it, however unsavory, may be little more than politics as usual. Companies make donations all the time to lawmakers who oversee issues that affect them. It’s difficult to know what was in Thompson’s head when he decided to hold the hearing. And he would hardly be the first lawmaker to try to help friendly contractors to get a shot at federal contracts.

Still, the evidence amassed by the Post suggests this may be a particularly egregious example of a member of Congress using his oversight power for political purposes. And with the Ethics committee investigating, we likely haven’t heard the last of it.