W.Va.: 12-Term Democrat at Center of Ethics Storm
Ethics allegations against Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) hit the front page of two major newspapers last week, prompting fears among Democrats that the twelve-term lawmaker's reelection bid could be endangered, along with the effectiveness of their party's overall "culture of corruption" argument against Republicans in the 2006 midterms. With so much at stake, Democrats were quick to launch an all-out campaign to discredit the charges.
The controversy surrounding Mollohan was sparked by a story in Friday's Wall Street Journal (and a similar story the following day in the New York Times) that revealed that the Justice Department is reviewing a complaint regarding Mollohan's finances. (The Times editorialized on the issue yesterday, calling Mollohan the "latest example of the sort of shady dealings that have sent Congress plummeting in the public's estimation"; here's a news article by The Post's Tom Edsall on the matter.)
The National Legal & Policy Center, a conservative-minded watchdog group, filed a 500-page document in late February with the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia alleging that Mollohan severely underreported his personal finances in past disclosure statements. Ken Boehm, the president of the NLPC, said his group began investigating the personal financial disclosures of all the members of the House Appropriations Committee last May and Mollohan "stuck out like a sore thumb."
At the center of the NLPC complaint is an exponential increase in Mollohan's net worth between 2000 and 2004 that was due in large part to a series of real estate investments. In 2000, Mollohan's personal financial disclosure statement showed him with $565,000 in household assets and $465,000 in debt; four years later his household assets were estimated at between $6.3 million and $24.9 million with debts of between $3.7 million and $16.5 million. (Mollohan has said his worth is much closer to the lower end of those estimates.)
During that same period, Mollohan secured more than $150 million in earmarked appropriations for five nonprofit groups that he helped establish and which are based in his congressional district. One of the groups is headed by a woman with whom Mollohan has invested in real estate in North Carolina.
"I very much understood that if you don't respond to a negative attack than the negative attack is likely to be successful," Mollohan said in an interview earlier this week when asked about his aggressive approach in response to the complaint. He added that he had never heard about the NLPC filing before receiving a call from the Wall Street Journal reporter late last week and still has not seen a copy of the report. (Boehm said much of the report would be available online in the near future.)
Republicans quickly sought to make political hay out of the complaint. On Friday, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) called on Mollohan to step down from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, where he currently serves as the ranking Democrat, until the Justice Department offers further guidance. Reynolds also suggested that the committee's current stalemate over investigating alleged ethics breaches might be the result of Mollohan's unwillingness to have it investigate him. Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) quickly echoed Reynolds's sentiments.
Republicans' motives are not entirely altruistic, of course. For the first time in better than two decades, Republicans are targeting Mollohan in his northeastern West Virginia seat, recruiting state Del. Chris Wakim (R) as a challenger (with the help of the White House). Vice President Dick Cheney will head to the district, which gave President Bush 58 percent of the vote in 2004, for an April 21 fundraiser to benefit Wakim. Picking up this seat would help offset what many political observers predict will be significant gains by Democrats this fall.
Given that backdrop, Mollohan has smartly sought to cast the complaint filed by the NLPC in partisan terms. "The NLPC has in the past targeted Democrats with charges that later proved to be without merit," Mollohan said in a statement released by his campaign. "Obviously I am in the crosshairs of the National Republican Party and like-minded entities, such as the NLPC."
In a letter sent to Reynolds and Hastert, Mollohan wrote that calls for him to resign from the Ethics Committee reveal "the entirely partisan, political nature of the attack that has been made upon me, and the reason this attack has been made." He added: "The reason is...that I strongly opposed efforts by the Republican leadership that would have seriously undermined the ability of the Ethics Committee to perform its basic function of enforcing House rules and standards."
Mollohan's campaign also is circulating a document titled, "Timeline of Mollohan standing up to Republicans to ensure fairness in the ethics process." It details his work to repeal changes -- backed by GOP leaders -- to how the ethics committee would pursue investigations. The ethics committee has been essentially deadlocked for the entirety of the 109th Congress.
The Democrat's campaign is sending around another document detailing the NLPC's past investigations and funding sources, which is titled "National Legal & Policy Center: Right-Wing Extremist Group." According to the Mollohan document, the NLPC has filed complaints against both Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). Cantwell was admonished by the Federal Election Commission for failing to report loan information but no further action was taken. The complaint against Moran was dismissed by the FEC.
Boehm took issue with the description of his group as a partisan entity. "We don't view ethics as a partisan issue," he said. Boehm said the NLPC has investigated a number of Republican congressman and Bush administration officials, including Darleen Druyun, who served time for her involvement in an a procurement scandal involving the Air Force and Boeing. "If we were just picking on Democrats we wouldn't have picked on her," Boehm said.
Unlike fellow Democratic Rep. William Jefferson (La.), who also finds himself under federal investigation, Mollohan is taking this controversy head on -- a savvy move given the possibility of a serious reelection fight in the fall. Much of Mollohan's fate is out of his hands, however, as it depends heavily on whether the Justice Department decides to move forward with an investigation. We'll be watching closely and will keep Fix readers updated.
April 13, 2006; 6:00 AM ET
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