House ethics committee's failure to discipline anyone in the Mark Foley page scandal shows the need for an independent watchdog.
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Critics for years have described the bipartisan U.S. House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct as a joke. Last week the panel issued a lengthy report on the circumstances surrounding the misconduct of former Florida Congressman Mark Foley with House pages and removed all doubt about the House's inability to discipline itself.
Although the investigation found numerous instances in which House leaders had willfully ignored complaints of Foley's inappropriate e-mail contacts with teenage male pages, the committee somehow concluded that no rules were violated and no disciplinary action was justified. This, despite the probe's determination that evidence indicated House Speaker Dennis Hastert and staffers were told about the continuing problems with Foley's sexual interest in the pages but failed to intervene.
Retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., was told by a page about sexually explicit e-mails and counseled the young man not to tell anyone. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, caught criticism for simply passing on information about Foley to Hastert's staff and then dropping the matter. A Democratic Caucus official, Matt Miller, took some of the compromising e-mails and circulated them to the press rather than turning the documents over to authorities.
The report also indicated Foley's questionable contacts with pages went beyond computer messages. In two incidents dating back six years, Foley went to the page dormitories late at night, one time turned away while apparently intoxicated. In another incident, he showed up at an end of year party and drove off with two pages.
Yet out of all the documented failures of elected officials and their staffs to take effective action to stop Foley, the report chose to close its probe without even admitting ethics violations had occurred: "The requirement that Members and staff act at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House does not mean that every error in judgment or failure to exercise appropriate oversight and sufficient diligence establishes a violation" of House rules.
With that elastic definition of what constitutes unacceptable conduct, it's not surprising that the House ethics committee has been a nonfactor in a year in which scandals drove five GOP members, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay, from Congress. Several members pleaded guilty to criminal violations.
When the FBI raided Louisiana Democrat William J. Jefferson's Capitol Hill office in search of evidence in a bribery investigation, House Speaker Hastert denounced the raid as a violation of the separation of powers. The ethics committee did not launch an investigation of Jefferson, a member of the committee at the time.
A longtime ethics in government activist, Fred Wertheimer of the group Democracy 21, expressed amazement that the committee could conclude that wrongdoing occurred in the Foley scandal, but hold no one responsible for it. Given the committee's recent history for dodging responsibility for delving into members' ethical lapses, the real surprise would have been if it had taken strong enforcement action.
If the House really wants to clean up its badly tarnished image, it should consider creating a semi-independent, nonpartisan inspector general's office. A credible investigator would probe alleged misconduct by members, compile reports and make recommendations that could then be considered by the full legislative body.
Congress might still choose to whitewash its own, but at least every representative would be on public record to be held accountable by constituents.