Why We Need Ethics Reform, Reason # 135

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today on an investigation by federal prosectors into Rep. Allan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), specifically a pattern of Congressional earmarks totalling $178 million that he has channeled to a group of non-profit organizations in his state. Prosecutors are allegedly examining political contributions from employees of those same non-profits, and personal financial dealings, including real estate investments, that Rep. Mollohan and his wife have pursued with some of the individuals involved.

Rep. Mollohan has not been accused of any wrongdoing at this time, and he has welcomed the review.  "We operate transparently," he said, adding "every one of the earmarks is held to the highest standards of accountability" and publicly disclosed.

We all know by now that Congress does a lot of its appropriating through earmarks – $53 billion worth in 2004 – and that the use of earmarks has exploded over the past several years. We have no doubt that many of them are used as rewards for campaign contributors in the "pay-to-play" culture that has enveloped Congress recently. Of course, some (perhaps many) of them are for perfectly legitimate purposes, and do not represent legislative favors for contributors.

What makes this investigation particularly interesting is that Rep. Mollohan just happens to be the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee. And while he declines to suggest political motivations for this investigation at this time, it’s also interesting to note that he is facing the first serious Republican challenger in many years, one who has the backing of the White House.

Following today’s news, House Speaker Dennis Haster has called for Mollohan to step down from the ethics committee, with none-too-subtle accusations of the ranking Democrats motivations. "I was wondering why [Ethics Committee Democrats] were dragging their feet on this whole ethics thing," Hastert said. "I don’t know if that has anything to do with it or not, we’ll see." Added National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas Reynolds (R-N.Y.) "It is no wonder that Mr. Mollohan and Democrat leaders have stalled for so long in getting the Ethics Committee up and running."

Of course, such accusations paint a highly self-serving and wholly inaccurate picture of the problems with the House ethics committee. Whatever the Democrats other faults in not pushing for ethics investigations, the reality is that the Republican leadership has actively worked to eviscerate the committee since it admonished then House Majority leader Tom DeLay in the fall of 2004 – first by replacing the committee chair with someone more compliant, then firing the investigative staff, then changing the rules – and that Mollohan has stood in their path every step of the way, winning several of these battles. Could that be why he’s in the crosshairs today?

Whatever the results of this latest dust up and investigation, it is just one more conclusive piece of evidence as to why we need an independent, non-partisan agency, such as an Office of Public Integrity, to investigate ethics violations in the Congress – and not a committee that is used for partisan attacks or whitewhashing, or deadlocked in inaction because of it.  And we hope that Rep. Mollohan will continue his advocacy of real and effective ethics enforcement in Congress.

To send your Representative a message on the need for real ethics reform, including an Office of Public Integrity, just go to our Action Center.

-Gordon Clark