House Ethics leak shows dozens of lawmakers under scrutiny

A badly-secured file from the House Ethics Committee shows dozens of lawmakers under scrutiny for potential corruption charges — and one in particular who may face a less-friendly inquiry from the Justice Department.  Federal investigators asked the committee to suspend a years-long probe into the activities of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), indicating that criminal charges may result.  The Washington Post reports the memo in two stories today:

House ethics investigators have been scrutinizing the activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several aides in inquiries about issues including defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling, according to a confidential House ethics committee report prepared in July.

The report appears to have been inadvertently placed on a publicly accessible computer network, and it was provided to The Washington Post by a source not connected to the congressional investigations. The committee said Thursday night that the document was released by a low-level staffer.

The ethics committee is one of the most secretive panels in Congress, and its members and staff members sign oaths not to disclose any activities related to its past or present investigations. Watchdog groups have accused the committee of not actively pursuing inquiries; the newly disclosed document indicates the panel is conducting far more investigations than it had revealed.

The reason for the secrecy is simple; the information could be damaging to politicians whose corruption or unethical practices have not yet been proven.  In that sense, the revelation of these probes is at least nominally unfair, since the allegations behind them may not have any evidence to support the charges.  The Ethics Committee has acted incompetently in protecting that information.

On the other hand, none of these names are a surprise, as Michelle notes:

The investigations by two separate ethics offices include an examination of the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), as well as others who helped steer federal funds to clients of the PMA Group. The lawmakers received campaign contributions from the firm and its clients. A document obtained by The Washington Post shows that the subcommittee members under scrutiny also include Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) , C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.).

The document also indicates that the House ethics committee’s staff recently interviewed the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) about his allegation that a PMA lobbyist threatened him in 2007 when he resisted steering federal funds to a PMA client. The lobbyist told a Nunes staffer that if the lawmaker didn’t help, the defense contractor would move out of Nunes’s district and take dozens of jobs with him.

And two of our favorites are among them:

The House ethics committee announced Thursday it is investigating two California Democratic lawmakers, but its embarrassed leaders then had to explain that other members—named in a confidential memo that a hacker posted online—may have committed no wrongdoing.

The committee said it is investigating whether Rep. Maxine Waters used her influence to help a bank in which her husband owned stock, and whether the couple benefited as a result. Separately, the panel is investigating whether Rep. Laura Richardson failed to disclose required information on her financial disclosure forms and received special treatment from a lender.

I find this less than compelling.  The HEC has been a toothless entity under the direction of both parties, mostly existing as a facade for the appearance of clean government.  They rarely act unless all other options are excluded, and usually hope that the Justice Department relieves them of their burden to police themselves.  We’d like to think that either Democratic or Republican leadership really concerns itself with draining the swamp, but mostly they’re interested in using corruption as a bat at elections rather than cleaning it up — because the only way to really eliminate it would be to curtail the federal spending that creates it.

That’s why this is probably the only real news in the revelation:

The Justice Department has told the ethics panel to suspend a probe of Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), whose personal finances federal investigators began reviewing in early 2006 after complaints from a conservative group that he was not fully revealing his real estate holdings. There has been no public action on that inquiry for several years. But the department’s request in early July to the committee suggests that the case continues to draw the attention of federal investigators, who often ask that the House and Senate ethics panels refrain from taking action against members whom the department is already investigating.

Mollohan said that he was not aware of any ongoing interest by the Justice Department in his case and that he and his attorneys have not heard from federal investigators. “The answer is no,” he said.

If the DoJ requested that the HEC stop its investigation, it must be onto something rather tasty.  Whether or not that results in charges remains to be seen, especially from this DoJ, but the news of such a probe is very interesting indeed.