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Senate Ethics Committee’s Weak Record Shows Need for Establishment of Office of Public Integrity, Groups Say

March 27, 2006

Senate Ethics Committee’s Weak Record Shows Need for Establishment of Office of Public Integrity, Groups Say

Four Good Government Groups Send Letter to U.S. Senate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Senate ethics committee has been unresponsive to past complaints about potential ethics violations by lawmakers, and when it has acted, it usually has given members mere slaps on the wrist, four good government groups said in a letter sent to the U.S. Senate today. The unimpressive record of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics deeply underscores the need for the establishment of an Office of Public Integrity, added the groups, who urged senators to approve such an office when considering lobbying reform legislation this week. The groups are Public Citizen, Common Cause, Democracy 21 and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

In a letter addressed to U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and copied to all senators, the groups noted that since 2003, five organizations – Common Cause, Democracy 21, Judicial Watch, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Public Citizen – have filed at least a dozen formal complaints or requests for investigation with the Senate ethics committee, asking for investigations of alleged misconduct by both Republican and Democratic senators. With only a few isolated exceptions, these respective groups have received no response from the ethics committee regarding the merits of these complaints.

Further, there is no public indication that the Senate ethics committee has conducted any investigation into the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals, the worst lobbying and ethics scandals in more than three decades.

“Fears by senators that this office would encroach on the constitutional authority of the ethics committee to impose sanctions are incorrect,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “Under the current proposal for an Office of Public Integrity, this office could not disclose any information unless authorized by the ethics committee and could not take any independent action following an investigation. Only the ethics committee could punish wrongdoers, or it could refer matters to the Justice Department for action.”

The groups also detailed past weak responses by the Senate ethics committee to egregious situations, including allegations surrounding convicted savings and loan mogul Charles Keating (the committee rebuked just one lawmaker despite investigating five members). In another case involving a senator accused of sexual abuse, the committee didn’t even bother to interview the congressional employee who claimed that the senator had assaulted her.

The very structure of the Senate ethics committee is a prescription for failure and does service to no one, the groups said. It is only natural that senators are very leery of sitting in judgment of their own colleagues, whose votes they might need in the near future. Even if the committee were to perform admirably, which it has not, an ethics committee in which members are responsible for investigating themselves strikes the American public as a prescription for a white-wash.

After stepping down as ethics panel chairman in the early 1990s, former Senator Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) said: “You censure someone, and the next day you’re seeking their vote. There are just too many inherent problems with senators judging senators.”

An effective Office of Public Integrity would oversee financial disclosure and lobbying reports; advise lawmakers, staff and lobbyists on how to comply with the rules; investigate complaints and present cases to the Senate ethics committee for final adjudication; and refer potential lobbying violations to the Justice Department for civil enforcement. A provision for such an office was removed in committee from legislation now in front of the Senate but should be restored, the groups said. A vote on an amendment by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is expected to this week.

To read the letter, click here.