- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

Republicans and Democrats are trading blame for the gridlocked House ethics panel, which for more than a year took no action despite a bevy of corruption scandals surfacing for members of both parties.

The panel last week agreed to start a probe into the conduct of Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio and Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, as well as a wider look into whether the scandal of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham has tainted other members.

The panel, officially called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also said it would have investigated the ethics of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who is under indictment, if he hadn’t already announced his intention to retire.

Republicans said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, who served as the ranking member of the panel, stalled the process because of his own ethical challenges. He stepped down last month from his post and was replaced by Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat.

Mr. Mollohan, West Virginia Democrat, has been accused of directing $178 million to nonprofits in his district whose leaders were campaign donors. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Republicans said the tense relationship between Mr. Mollohan and panel Chairman Doc Hastings, Washington Republican, caused the political gridlock.

“Isn’t it interesting that when the chief Democrat quits the stalled ethics panel under scrutiny, his replacement is able to easily work with House Republicans to move the process forward?” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the majority party’s claim is “ludicrous.”

“The facts speak for themselves. The Republicans fired the chairman and two members of the committee, purged the professional staff and unilaterally tried to weaken the rules,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

The ethics stalemate started when the committee voted to punish Mr. DeLay for his conduct. Republican leaders removed the chairman and two of their members from the panel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the investigations show Republicans are “about a culture of corruption, incompetence and cronyism.”

Key staffers for Mr. Ney have implicated him in the bribery scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to giving gifts to lawmakers in exchange for political favors. Mr. Ney’s former chief aide, Neil Volz, admitted he conspired to corrupt the congressman, his staff and other members of Congress with trips, free tickets and meals.

Mr. Jefferson’s office was searched by the FBI over the weekend as part of its investigation into whether he accepted bribes.

He has not been charged with a crime, but two persons have pleaded guilty to bribing or helping bribe the congressman, who they said took more than $400,000 in exchange for lobbying Nigerian government officials on behalf of a technology firm.

Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned from the House last year and is serving eight years in prison for tax evasion and accepting bribes from defense contractors.

The ongoing Cunningham investigation has expanded with a look at two District-based escort services from which defense contractors are suspected of having supplied Cunningham, and potentially other lawmakers, with prostitutes.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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