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Reform Groups Call on Congressional Ethics Committees to Investigate Abramoff Lobbying Scandals

Congressional Ethics Coalition

Campaign   Legal Center ● Center for Responsive Politics ●

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington ● Common Cause ●

Democracy 21 ● Judicial Watch ● League of Women Voters ●

Public Campaign ● Public Citizen ● US PIRG


Feb. 9, 2006

Reform Groups Call on Congressional Ethics Committees to Investigate Abramoff Lobbying Scandals

The Congressional Ethics Coalition was formed in 2004 to promote reasonable reform of the congressional ethics process on Capitol Hill.  It is a nonpartisan, ideologically diverse group of leading government reform organizations:  the Campaign Legal Center, the Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Democracy 21, Judicial Watch, League of Women Voters, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and US PIRG. 

Today, the Coalition calls on the House and Senate ethics committees to immediately initiate investigations into potential violations of congressional ethics rules by Members of Congress who have received favors and campaign contributions from lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  We urge the Committees to investigate whether Members received favors that violate congressional ethics rules and whether Members may have taken official actions on behalf of Mr. Abramoff or of his clients in exchange for campaign contributions, gifts, travel or other favors.

The Abramoff scandal is one of the biggest issues facing the 109th Congress, yet both congressional ethics committees have said they have no plans to investigate.  This inaction fails both the institution and the American people.

Those who claim that the committees can take no action while the Department of Justice is investigating potential criminal violations misconstrue the main purpose of the Congressional ethics process.  There is a difference between the investigation and prosecution of a criminal violation and upholding the high ethics standards in Congress.  Successful ethics committee investigations occurred during past congressional scandals, such as ABSCAM and Koreagate that involved potential criminal conduct being investigated by the Justice Department.

The refusal to act on the Abramoff scandal is yet another example of a congressional ethics process that has ceased to function.  In fact, the House ethics committee has come to a dead halt.  An ethics “truce” where threats of partisan payback silenced the process was followed by an ethics committee that did not function during the entire year of 2005 in spite of numerous pending cases.  Among the matters pending and still requiring urgent attention are:

  • an inquiry into former Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-TX) dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff;
  • an inquiry into Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) and his dealings with Abramoff;
  • an inquiry into whether Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and his aides improperly conducted partisan political activities out of his Detroit congressional office;
  • an inquiry into allegations that Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) violated ethics rules and standards in handing over to the press a tape of an illegally intercepted phone conversation;
  • an inquiry into whether Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) improperly used his office to aid his daughter’s public relations firm; and
  • an inquiry into whether Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) misused his public office for personal gain.

For its part the Senate ethics committee has managed to fly below the radar, although it is not without serious fault. To date, for example, the Committee has taken no action to investigate one of the biggest congressional scandals of modern times – the Abramoff affair.

In the short term, these matters merit the committees’ immediate attention and action before the end of the 109th Congress. 

Unfortunately, the process that Congress currently uses for investigating possible ethics violations has lost credibility.  It is seriously flawed, marred by inaction and is too vulnerable to partisan winds and cozy confluences of interests.  

While the House and Senate ethics committees can and must move forward with investigations of Abramoff and any pending matters, all of the groups represented here believe that significant changes are needed to improve congressional ethics enforcement.  We all believe that the House ethics committee should allow individual citizens and outside groups to file ethics complaints, and that there should be openness in the ethics process generally. 

Many of us support more fundamental reforms, such as the creation of an independent ethics commission or an Office of Public Integrity as an independent office within the legislative branch.  What we know for certain is that without effective enforcement and oversight, even the best rules can be rendered meaningless.  Ethics on the Hill is no longer about “what is right” but about “what you can get away with.”  The way to fix this is through effective enforcement. 

This is where we are now. At stake are the credibility and moral authority of the Congress of the United States of America.