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Consequences for ethical lapses on Capitol Hill

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Last month, a congressional committee voted to open ethics investigations into nearly a dozen members of the House of Representatives. Among those under scrutiny for possible ethics violations are L.A.'s Maxine Waters and Long Beach's Laura Richardson.

"Unethical" is not the same as "illegal" - and the penalty isn't anything close to jail. But if you're guilty, the sentence is something no one in Congress wants to face.

KPCC's Washington Correspondent Kitty Felde has the third part in her series on congressional ethics.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is looking into Long Beach Democrat Laura Richardson. It wants to know if a bank did her a favor when she recovered her home from foreclosure. The committee also wants to know if L.A. Democrat Maxine Waters used her political clout to help a bank get federal bailout money – she owned stock in that bank.

Melanie Sloan with the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says no one has alleged at this time that either Laura Richardson or Maxine Waters has engaged in criminal conduct, merely that they’ve broken House ethical rules.

Sloan says the most serious ethical lapses usually stem from the need to raise campaign money – a good reason, she says, for campaign finance reform. Danielle Brian, who heads another Washington watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, agrees.

“So much of what’s wrong with Washington really does come down to money in politics and campaign finance," Sloan says. “If you could remove that desperate, insatiable need for members of Congress to find access to more campaign contributions, it would change this dynamic.”

The ethical allegations aimed at congresswomen Richardson and Waters aren’t linked to campaign finance and they aren’t criminal. Even if the House investigation proves Richardson and Waters tripped over their ethics, what’s the worst that can happen? Not much – or so it seems.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren heads the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. She says if you’re mad about somebody’s misbehavior, you want a strong penalty. “Well, we don’t have the death penalty here in the ethics committee.”

The San Jose Democrat says if you look at the historical precedents, “the most you can do is throw somebody out.”

That happens when a member of Congress is convicted of a crime and refuses to resign. But in more than two centuries, Congress has thrown out one of its own only about a half a dozen times.

Lofgren says if you’re not going to throw somebody out, all the other remedies are variations of calling them out for bad behavior. Those variations can include a letter of reprimand or kicking a House member off a committee. Joe Wilson, the Republican who called President Obama a liar during his health care speech to Congress, was censured by the House.

Melanie Sloan says Richardson and Waters could get censured too if the ethics committee concludes they violated House rules. Sloan says it would be “a little worse than the Joe Wilson treatment in that they’d be forced to stand on the House floor and basically told you’re ‘bad, bad, bad.’”

A public scolding is more than an embarrassment, says Sloan. There’s also the political fallout. “No member wants to have campaign commercials about how they were sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee.”

And the folks back home pay attention.

In the midterm elections in 2006, a CNN exit poll showed the number one issue for voters was corruption in government – more important than terrorism, the economy, or the war in Iraq.

Melanie Sloan says even House members in safe seats lose because their supporters stay home. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren agrees, saying once a member is chastised for misbehavior, they almost always either lose their election or retire.

The sentence for an ethical violation isn’t jail – it’s political exile. Tomorrow, we’ll peek behind the closed doors of a pair of ethics committees.