Ethics Committee Clears Seven, But Questions Persist

Maybe it's time for the House ethics committee to find a new name.

Last week, the bipartisan committee, known formally as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, cleared seven lawmakers who had been accused of trading millions in federal dollars for campaign contributions.

The exoneration came despite a report from a separate group, the Office of Congressional Ethics, that found defense contractors that received the federal money (which came in the form of earmarks) believed their contributions were directly tied to federal money coming their way.

To understand exactly what happened here, let's zero in on one of the accused lawmakers: Democrat Pete Visclosky of Indiana (pictured). The Office of Congressional Ethics (an independent group separate from the House ethics committee) found that in 2008 Visclosky's office was inviting contractors to a fundraising dinner at the same time it was asking them to apply for new earmarks.

According to the Office of Congressional Ethics, the only people invited to the fundraiser were defense contractors who had put earmark requests into Visclosky. A week after the fundraiser, Visclosky took action on behalf of donors.

Yet the House ethics committee cleared Visclosky, Republican Todd Tiahrt of Kansas and the other lawmakers of any wrongdoing. (The Office of Congressional Ethics had recommended the ethics committee investigate Visclosky and Tiahrt specifically.) Zoe Lofgren, the chair of the ethics committee, insisted "there was a complete separation between the fundraising activities and the legislative activities on the part of these members." The committee's statement is here, and its report is here.

This despite the fact that Visclosky's chief of staff and appropriations director attended the fundraiser, and despite of emails like this one, reported by the New York Times, between executives at Sierra Nevada Corporation explaining why the company was donating an additional $20,000 to Visclosky: "That's what each of the companies working with [the] PMA [Group] and Visclosky have been asked to contribute. He has been a good supporter of SNC. We have gotten over 10M in adds from him." (PMA is a now-disbanded lobbying organization specializing in defense earmarks tied to the late Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, an aggressive earmarker who was among the lawmakers cleared by the ethics committee. The firm was raided by federal prosecutors as part of an investigation into its practices.)

One reason that the House ethics committee cleared the lawmakers, according to Washington ethics lawyer Robert Kellner, is that what they did doesn't stray far from standard Washington practice.

"Had the ethics committee come out a different way here, the implications would have been very, very broad for the way that virtually all members of Congress conduct themselves," he told National Public Radio. (The Justice Department, it should be noted, has subpoenaed Visclosky's records.)

In addition to Visclosky, Murtha and Tiahrt, the lawmakers cleared in the investigation were Republican C. W. Bill Young of Florida and Democrats Norman Dicks of Washington, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and James P. Moran of Virginia. As the Times notes, all were members of the defense appropriations panel, which is responsible for billions of dollars in earmarks each year.

"Today I received absolute vindication," said Tiahrt, who is running for Senate in Kansas, upon news that he had been exonerated by the ethics committee. "This comes as no surprise because there was never anything to justify a review in the first place."

The House ethics committee was in the news last week for another reason as well: It admonished powerful Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel for accepting trips to the Caribbean sponsored by corporate interests, in violation of Congressional gift rules.

But the admonishment was toothless, and the committee has not yet issued findings in the other issues swirling around Rangel, among them alleged fundraising violations and failures to pay taxes, a particularly ironic charge considering that Rangel is chair the House Ways and Means Committee.

The committee found that Rangel and other lawmakers who took the trip were unaware of the corporate sponsorship, though it said staffers for Rangel were aware of the connection. This despite the fact that as the conservative advocacy group the National Legal and Policy Center shows here, signs for corporate sponsors were visible at the event.