House ethics panel begins probes
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — After 16 months of inactivity and partisan infighting, the House ethics committee Wednesday night began investigations into bribery allegations against Reps. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, and William Jefferson, D-La., and a separate inquiry into the widening scandal surrounding former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.
The committee would have ordered another investigation into the overseas trips of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, had he not announced he will resign from the House on June 9.
The inquiries by the long-dormant House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct come after the Justice Department intensified its corruption investigations of Ney and Jefferson, and after Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and was sent to prison.
But as those and other scandals were unfolding, the ethics committee — chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. — sat on the sidelines. Democrats said GOP leaders had changed the rules unfairly to thwart investigations that could have negative ramifications for the Republican Party. Republicans accused the Democrats of dragging their feet on the committee's reorganization to bolster their accusations of a cover-up.
That logjam was broken last month when Rep. Allan Mollohan, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the committee, was forced to step down from the panel amid accusations that he used his congressional position to funnel money to his home-state foundations, possibly enriching himself in the process.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., named a fellow Californian and veteran of the committee, Howard Berman, to take the top slot. Berman quickly joined with Hastings to get the panel moving again.
Ney has been a primary target of the federal investigation into the activities of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In four separate guilty pleas, Abramoff and three former House aides all said Ney had used his position to grant favors to the Abramoff team in exchange for gifts.
"For the last 15 months," Ney said, "all I have asked for is an opportunity to have the facts surrounding the Abramoff matter to be reviewed by the appropriate investigative bodies in order to have this matter addressed once and for all."
A spokesman for Jefferson declined to comment. But Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson last week pleaded guilty to bribery, saying Jefferson helped him market his telecommunications firm, iGate, to federal contractors and African countries and in return requested payments to a firm belonging to Jefferson's family.
But the Cunningham inquiry could hold the most political significance, since it will look into activities that could snare lawmakers who so far have escaped official scrutiny. Cunningham confessed to accepting millions in bribes from two defense contractors, Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes.
The case took a new twist last month when Wade told prosecutors Wilkes had an arrangement with a limousine company, which had an arrangement with at least one escort service, one source said. Wade said limos would pick up Cunningham and a prostitute and bring them to suites Wilkes maintained at the Watergate Hotel and the Westin Grand in Washington. Investigators are looking into whether other lawmakers took part.
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