Monday, July 17, 2006

It has been nearly two months since the House ethics panel began probes into the conduct of several lawmakers, but no progress has been announced. The surfacing of a bevy of other scandals may not seem to have the attention of the secretive oversight committee, but its work is quietly humming along this summer.

Members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are following recent news reports suggesting misconduct by House members from both parties and are working either in tandem with or parallel to Justice Department investigations.

Panel members are “plenty busy,” said one source close to the committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On May 17, Republican Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington and ranking Democrat Howard L. Berman of California announced that the panel would investigate two members and cast a wider net probing into activities related to disgraced former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California.

The panel said Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is under scrutiny for his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff has been sentenced for his role in a bribery scandal and is cooperating with authorities.

Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana also is being investigated by the panel. Authorities revealed in May that they had videotaped him receiving a $100,000 bribe from an FBI informant and that $90,000 in $100 bills was later found in his freezer.

The panel also said it would have investigated former Majority Leader Tom DeLay had the Texas Republican not resigned his congressional seat last month.

Political observers and lawmakers from both parties have said they are expecting Mr. Ney and Mr. Jefferson to be indicted by the Justice Department.

The May statements by Mr. Hastings and Mr. Berman outlined the misconduct accusations and gave a sense of where the investigations were headed.

The two lawmakers said Mr. Ney would be investigated “with respect to allegations that [he] received gifts, travel benefits, campaign contributions to political committees and organizations, or any other items of value” from tainted lobbyists and their conspirators.

Authorities are getting help with the Ney probe from Abramoff, former DeLay staffers Michael Scanlon and Tony C. Rudy and former Ney chief of staff Neil G. Volz, all of whom have pleaded guilty to various charges.

The probe into Mr. Jefferson’s conduct examines deals that authorities think he made with technology firms to lay broadband network and establish other companies in Africa in exchange for cash or stock for him or family members.

As for Cunningham, who will serve an eight-year prison term for accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for securing defense contracts, the panel is closely reading news reports that suggest the corruption went deeper.

The ethics panel’s spokesman and its 10 members either did not respond to an interview request or declined comment because the investigations are ongoing. The spokesman said there would be no formal announcement until the investigations conclude.

The Justice Department, which is probing the conduct of Mr. Ney and Mr. Jefferson, also would not discuss the investigations.

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