- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

The secretive House ethics panel is unlikely to complete several of its investigations during the final month of the 109th Congress, so questions about the conduct of a handful of members will remain unresolved.

The probes began in May but will end when members adjourn this month. A new committee at the convening of the 110th Congress could vote to reauthorize or carry over the investigations, but panel members are not required to do so.

House leaders are mum about whether the panel will keep the same members in the upcoming session, when Democrats will assume majority for the first time since 1994.

The panel, formally named the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has at least four active investigations, including probes of Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, and former Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican.

Ney pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and to accepting bribes in exchange for legislative favors this fall, then resigned his seat before last month’s elections.

Mr. Jefferson faces a runoff Saturday against Democrat Karen Carter, a state representative, in his bid for a ninth term representing a New Orleans district. He has not been charged with a crime, but FBI investigators found $90,000 cash in his freezer after they videotaped him receiving a $100,000 bribe.

Also under investigation is the bribery scandal involving former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in 2005. The panel is trying to determine whether the California Republican, serving an eight-year prison sentence for accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes for securing defense contracts, was able to influence any other members.

The ethics panel has been investigating the inappropriate computer messages that former Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, sent to male teenagers who had served as congressional pages.

Democrats campaigned against a culture of corruption, reminding voters that Republicans in the majority were plagued by scandals and saying special interests influenced legislation on health care and energy.

Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi of California has promised to “drain the swamp” and said yesterday that her party’s “first order of business” in January will be ethics reform.

“The people’s House should not be an auction house, with legislation being sold to the highest bidder,” she said. “Democrats pledge to make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history.”

Changes could arise in a House rules package passed when the new session convenes Jan. 4.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said any ethics reform should include creation of an independent office of public integrity. Without outside oversight or enforcement, corrupt members can feel protected by their congressional pals, she said.

“The ethics committee is always viewed as partisan and political, and they need to take investigations away from it,” she said, adding that groups such as CREW should be allowed to file ethics complaints.

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