A Double Standard for House Ethics?
The ethics cases against Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) highlight an odd paradox: that many other members of Congress do similar things but are not facing charges.
On March 4, 2009, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) introduced a witness at a hearing promoting renewable energy interests: Brooks Hurst. Congressman Graves failed to mention that Hurst was an old friend. The congressman also left out that his own wife and Hurst invested money in the same Missouri fuel plants.
Congresswoman Waters argues that is the same thing she's accused of: helping a good friend and his company, where her spouse owned stock. Yet Waters is the only one facing an ethics trial.
Then there's Congressman John Carter (R-Texas). On Oct. 7, 2009, he criticized Rangel for, among other things, failing to disclose income. "These are all violations of the rules of the House," Carter said in an interview about Rangel.
But just a few weeks later, Carter himself was making a mea culpa. "I made an error on my House financial disclosure forms," he said in a speech on Oct. 21, 2009 on the House floor. It turns out he got caught -- just like Rangel -- failing to report income: nearly $300-thousand dollars in profits from selling Exxon stock. But Carter isn't facing an ethics trial.
When it comes to ethics, Congress largely polices itself. It has set up two separate ethics bodies and what's interesting is: they almost always disagree.
(At left, watch Sharyl Attkisson's congressional ethics report on Washington Unplugged)
"The fact is the House Ethics Committee is renowned for not doing its job," says watchdog Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "It is the most toothless committee in Congress. It never goes after anybody. It really exists just to give members a pass. Congress can say it cares about ethics by having an ethics committee, but the ethics committee never finds anybody did anything wrong."
To fix the problem, in 2007, Congress created an independent Office of Congressional Ethics. An even split of Democrats, led by former Congressman David Skaggs of Colorado, and Republicans, led by former CIA Director Porter Goss. The independent Office investigates cases and refers them to the House Ethics Committee... which decides whether to bring charges.
But just look at how it's turned out: in eleven out of twelve cases referred by the independent Office, the House Ethics Committee decided not to charge any members. Sloan says the insiders are thumbing their noses at the independent Office.
"The inside Ethics Committee has made it abundantly clear that it hates the Office of Congressional Ethics, suggesting that the office is out-of-touch and overly-aggressive and finding problems where none exist," she said.
The independent Office found evidence that Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) got preferential treatment on her foreclosed home (read the report). They pursued Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) who claimed a Maryland home as his principle residence, though he was registered to vote and drive in California (read the report).
They found evidence suggesting two congressmen, Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) (report) and Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) (report) gave millions of your tax dollars to companies -- to get campaign contributions. And they referred that conflict-of-interest case against Congressman Graves (report).
Each of the members of Congress denied wrongdoing. And each time, the House Ethics Committee -- the Congressional insiders -- sided with them.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics is looking at up to 42 unnamed members of Congress. If recent history is an indicator, the members have little to fear. If anyone should worry, it might be the independent Office itself, which serves at the pleasure of Congress: those they investigate. Both Democrats and Republicans have said they want to dilute or eliminate the independent ethics office. None of them would talk with us.
Sloan says the idea of eliminating the Office of Congressional Ethics is "horrifying" to watchdogs "because the one good thing that's happened to congressional ethics in the last few years has been the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Members are finally being held accountable for their misconduct."
So will the office be all but gone by this time next year?
"I think this time next year this office is all but gone. If it exists, it's just a shadow of its former self," says Sloan.
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