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A Break in the Clouds Over the House Ethics Panel

Committee leaders are negotiating a deal to end a partisan dispute and get back to work.

June 30, 2005|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House ethics committee, paralyzed for months by partisan disputes over rules and staffing, moved closer Wednesday to resuming its duties.

Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel's ranking minority member, said he had reached agreement in principle with the chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), that the professional staff would answer to a nonpartisan director.

Hastings could not be reached for comment. And Mollohan cautioned in a statement he issued after the pair met Wednesday that their agreement was not final, "as some issues require further discussion."

Democratic leadership aides predicted the panel could get back to work shortly after the House returned from a weeklong Fourth of July recess.

At the top of its to-do list will be a decision on whether to investigate House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

DeLay has come under scrutiny for two overseas trips he took. One was a 10-day trip to England and Scotland in 2000 that media reports say may have been partially paid for by a lobbyist. The other was a trip in 2001 to South Korea that was paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a registered foreign agent at the time. House ethics rules ban lobbyists and foreign agents from paying for congressional travel.

DeLay has denied any wrongdoing and has said he looks forward to presenting his case to the panel. He and other House Republicans have accused Democrats of dragging out the disputes over the ethics committee to ensure that the expected investigation into DeLay's travels will occur closer to the November 2006 elections. Democrats say they have only been trying to protect the committee's credibility.

Wednesday marked the first time that Hastings and Mollohan appeared to have made progress in resolving their dispute over whether the committee should hire staff by a vote of the full panel. That is how the committee, the only one in the House evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, has traditionally done its hiring.

Hastings, appointed the committee's chairman in January, had initially proposed naming his staff director to be the panel's chief of staff. Mollohan said that move would violate the committee's rules and damage its credibility with members as a nonpartisan investigatory panel.

In a letter he sent to every House member, Mollohan said he looked forward to working with Hastings to get the committee operating.

And in an interview, Mollohan said he believed it would take "three, four or five weeks" to hire a staff director and several investigators, once he and Hastings worked out the details of their agreement.

"We're getting it organized properly. It's not pretty, I acknowledge that -- but the goal is to have an independent, nonpartisan staff on that committee, and I think we are well on our way to having that," Mollohan said.

A spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declined to comment.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that it appeared the dispute had been resolved.

"For nearly six months, Democrats have insisted that Republicans follow the rules of the House and hire a nonpartisan, professional staff. The Republican leadership appears to have finally conceded today what every American knows -- no one is above the law and rules must be followed," Pelosi said.

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