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Behind the scenes at House ethics committees

A sign for the Office of Congressional Ethics hangs on a wall October 30, 2009 in Washington, DC.
A sign for the Office of Congressional Ethics hangs on a wall October 30, 2009 in Washington, DC.
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Last month, the committee that serves as the "ethics cop" for the House of Representatives launched new investigations.

It's checking into several members of Congress - including Long Beach's Laura Richardson and L.A.'s Maxine Waters. The Richardson case involves a house that was in foreclosure. The Waters case involves federal bailout money and an L.A. bank.

KPCC's Washington Correspondent Kitty Felde closes her series on ethics in Congress with a look at the secretive committee that will decide whether Richardson and Waters broke any rules.

If you’re a member of Congress who played fast and loose with the ethical rules, you’ll be investigated and judged by... other members of Congress. It sounds suspicious. Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of San Jose shrugs her shoulders. Lofgren chairs the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. She says it's important to note that “the Constitution is the origin of the Committee on Standards. And the Constitution says that the House shall be the judge of its members.”

The House may be the judge, but Lofgren says the Committee on Standards relies on reporters to keep track of lawmakers who step out of line. And she says reporters keep close track. “I get every single day an e-mail with all of the press reports about members of Congress from A to Z on this has been said, that has been said.” And Lofgren says she and the ranking Republican member read them all.

If there’s a possible ethics violation, the committee goes to work. Lofgren says most investigations are initiated by the committee, but any member of Congress can file a complaint.

Former Congresswoman Yvonne Burke says it’s a flawed system. “Some years ago,” she says, “rules were made that there had to be two members of the House to sign before there could be any investigation of a member of Congress. As a result, many members were just intimidated and were really afraid to sign because they knew there might be retribution. And it was just not a really good situation.”

During midterm elections three years ago, voters put ethics at the top of their list of concerns. That’s when the House of Representatives created a second panel to police ethics: the Office of Congressional Ethics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Yvonne Burke to join a bipartisan group of mostly retired lawmakers on this new panel. Its mission: investigate complaints brought forward by anybody.

Burke says some complaints come from public interest groups. Some come from individual citizens. Some come from newspaper reports. “And then we have the authority,” she says, “that if we see something or hear something, we can initiate an investigation ourselves.”

The new group has been meeting monthly for about a year. It looks over reports prepared by a staff of former Justice Department investigators. Like the original ethics committee, it meets behind closed doors and its members are sworn to secrecy.

But Melanie Sloan with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the Office of Congressional Ethics because they don’t have subpoena power. Her political watchdog group flooded the Office of Congressional Ethics with the names of lawmakers to investigate.

“All they can do in any event is find probable cause that a member of Congress violated a rule or law,” Sloan says, “and then they can refer it over to the House Ethics Committee where the investigation will die a slow, long, painful death.”

It’s rare that a member of Congress is expelled for ethical violations. It’s happened fewer than half a dozen times. But Danielle Brian, head of the watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, is more optimistic about the new House ethics office, particularly when a status report on investigations was accidentally leaked. Brian says she saw the leak as good news, showing there is activity going on behind the scenes “that we just didn’t know was happening.”

That document shows ethics investigators are looking into nearly three dozen House members, including two locals. They want to know if Democrat Laura Richardson of Long Beach got special treatment from her bank over a foreclosed property. They’re looking at whether L.A. Democrat Maxine Waters used her political clout to steer federal bailout money to a bank she owned stock in. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct will release its report in January... of 2011.