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Anatomy of an Ethics Leak

The news that “dozens” of House lawmakers are under scrutiny by ethics investigators — reported last night by The Washington Post — will likely stir a small storm in Washington, particularly on an otherwise quiet Friday when Congress is out of town.

Yet few details contained in the leaked document are new (which makes some sense because it was prepared in July). There’s the investigation, for example, of lawmakers tied to PMA Group, the now-defunct lobbying shop that funneled millions of dollars of campaign contributions to members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which in turn directed more than $200 million to PMA clients. There’s the ongoing look at the personal finances of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the Ways and Means Chairman whose failure to include hundreds of thousands of dollars on financial disclosure forms has led to calls for his removal atop the committee. And there’s the case of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the House Financial Services member who organized a meeting between Treasury officials and the head of a bank in which her husband was heavily invested.

Yet these cases are all at least six months old. The fact that the ethics panel hasn’t reached any conclusions seems to reveal what many already suspect: that a system of having Congress investigate Congress is, at best, a conflict of interest, and, at worst, a stage show run by folks with no real appetite to punish colleagues.

The Post is quick to point out that the ethics panel isn’t exactly aggressive when it comes to discipline.

Ethics committee investigations are not uncommon. Most result in private letters that either exonerate or reprimand a member. In some rare instances, the censure is more severe.

No one knows this better than Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the tireless watchdog group that keeps an eye on ethics cases in Congress. Reacting to the Post story, CREW shot out a statement this morning, effectively accusing the ethics panel of being a paper tiger.

Starting an investigation isn’t enough. The real question is whether any of the members under investigation will ever be held accountable for their conduct. The committee’s record on such matters is dismal. You have only to look back at the Mark Foley investigation — where all of America knew there was wrongdoing yet the committee found none — to be skeptical of the House ethics process. There’s not much reason to think anything has changed, but one can always hope.

For its part, the ethics panel shot out a statement that seems intended more to ease the concerns of lawmakers listed in the leaked document than it does to convince the public that investigators are serious about punishing congressional wrongdoing.

At any one time, the Committee has dozens of matters regarding Members, Officers, and employees before it, including both investigations and requests for advice regarding House rules, financial disclosure, and travel, among other issues. No inference to any misconduct can be made from the fact that a matter is simply before the Committee.

Replace “misconduct” with “looming punishment” and this statement would probably be closer to the truth.

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