About That New Ethics Office...
Capitol Briefing's alma mater, Roll Call, had a good story Monday (subscription req'd) about some questionable behavior by a House aide that would make fine fodder for the newly formed Office of Congressional Ethics' first investigation.
The story reported that Jerry Hurckes -- Rep. Daniel Lipinski's (D-Ill.) top district aide who also serves as an elected member of the Oak Lawn, Ill., board of trustees -- has been bragging about earmarks he helped secure as a congressional staff member in town meetings and in literature for his re-election campaign.
The House ethics manual says that "staff who serve as local officials should always make clear in which capacity they are acting. They should discourage any suggestion that their local constituents will receive special treatment from the congressional office, beyond that received by other residents of the congressional district."
On its face, Hurckes' behavior at least seems worth further scrutiny by the ethics office. But here's the problem: The new office's inaugural investigation may well not start until the next president is inaugurated in 2009.
As Politico has pointed out, language contained in the law effectively limits the office's window for conducting investigations this year to July and August. And sources in both the Republican and Democratic leadership say it appears unlikely the office will be ready to work by the time that window opens up.
The bill creating the ethics office states that the office "shall not undertake any review of any alleged violation by a Member, officer, or employee of the House ... before 120 days after the date of adoption of this resolution." The bill passed March 11, so the earliest the office could launch a probe would be the week of July 9.
But the bill also states that the ethics committee "may not receive any referral from the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics within 60 days before a Federal, State, or local election in which the subject of the referral is a candidate." That means the office can't refer an investigation to the ethics panel between the beginning of September and Nov. 4 -- Election Day.
So theoretically, the OCE could launch some probes in July and August. But is that realistic? Before that can happen, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) must agree on the six board members who will run the office, and it's no easy task to get those two leaders to agree on anything.
"The Speaker will work in a bipartisan manner to appoint highly qualified individuals to serve on the Office of Congressional Ethics," said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami. "Delaying the process would serve neither the bipartisan majority of members of Congress who voted to create the outside ethics board, nor the demand by the American people for greater accountability and reform in Washington."
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said his boss -- who strongly opposed creating the ethics office, as did most Republicans -- would talk to Pelosi soon about how to proceed with appointing people to the OCE's board. "He certainly will not obstruct the process," Steel said.
In addition to reaching consensus on those six names and securing their agreement to serve on the board, Pelosi and Boehner also have to decide on allocating office space and a budget for the OCE. Then, once the six board members actually begin work, the board will have to interview and hire a staff of investigators, who in turn will have to give notice before leaving their current jobs, and so on.
With so much to do before the OCE can begin to function, the bottom line is that it would be something of a miracle if the office is really ready to start investigating members or staff in July or August. And by September, it will be too late to do anything before the election.
Of course, the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct could decide to start an investigation of Hurckes, or anyone else, without waiting for the new OCE to get its act together. But if recent history is any guide, the ethics committee probably won't do much unless the Hurckes story gets a lot more media attention or the Justice Department starts a probe (which appears unlikely, since the case appears to be more about potential violations of House rules rather than federal law).
Republicans have complained that the real problem with the ethics process is the committee itself, and Pelosi has said she is willing to start a dialogue with the GOP about reforming the panel. Perhaps those changes will be implemented right around the time the ethics office is ready to go to work -- next January.
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