For the second time in one week, Washington Post staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum miscast the rising tide of ethics investigations and corruption scandals plaguing primarily Republican officials as a bipartisan problem. Birnbaum also glided over the House ethics committee's internal struggles in hiring a new staff director -- a process long-delayed by Committee Chairman Doc Hastings' (R-WA) attempt to elevate his own chief of staff to the position.
In a December 5 Post article headlined, "In a Season of Scandals, Ethics Panels Are on Sidelines," Birnbaum reported:
So far this year, at least seven lawmakers have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct such as conspiracy, securities fraud and improper campaign donations. In the past two weeks alone, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned from Congress and pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy, and public relations executive Michael Scanlon admitted his role in a conspiracy to try to bribe a congressman.
In addition, The Washington Post and other publications have reported that a host of lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats, senators and members of the House -- are being examined by the Justice Department for their connections to [former lobbyist Jack] Abramoff, a lobbyist who, with his former partner Scanlon, billed Indian tribes $82 million in fees that may have been put to improper uses.
In addition to the scandals surrounding Cunningham, Scanlon, and Abramoff, Birnbaum noted the federal investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN). Frist is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Justice Department for selling stock he owned in HCA Inc., a hospital chain founded by his family, shortly before a weak earnings report caused the company's share price to plummet. Birnbaum also noted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R-TX) links to Abramoff and the ethics committee reprimands DeLay received in late 2004; as well as the Justice Department investigation into Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) "for possible violations connected with a telecommunications deal he was trying to arrange in Nigeria."
Even though his own reporting bears out the fact that more congressional Republicans have been affected by the recent rise in corruption and ethics investigations, Birnbaum continued to frame the current rash of scandals as a bipartisan issue. As Media Matters for America previously noted, a November 29 Post article also by Birnbaum reported that "pollsters say that voters think less of both political parties the more prominent the issue of corruption in Washington becomes," and, "[n]o fewer than seven lawmakers, including a Democrat, have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct."
In his December 5 article, Birnbaum also reported:
But the committee's five Republican and five Democratic members have not opened a new case or launched an investigation in the past 12 months. It took months to hire a new chief of staff, and he still is not in place. Nor has the panel hired a full complement of investigators.
"I would say by the early part of January, we will be fully organized -- or should be really close to that," said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the committee's ranking Democrat. By then, he added, the panel "will be in a position to fulfill all of our responsibilities."
Birnbaum did not note that the delay in hiring an ethics committee chief of staff arose out of Hastings' failed attempt to appoint Ed Cassidy, his own chief of staff, to the position despite Cassidy's lack of experience and committee rules requiring a "professional, nonpartisan staff." According to a February 3 New York Times article, Hastings was picked by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO) as chairman of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct because Hefley "drew the ire of some fellow Republicans after a series of findings against Mr. DeLay."
Hastings suggested in April that Cassidy take over the position after the former staff director, John Vargo, was dismissed in February. According to House Rule XI, regarding the House ethics committee staff: "(A) the staff be assembled and retained as a professional, nonpartisan staff; (B) each member of the staff shall be professional and demonstrably qualified for the position for which he is hired; (C) the staff as a whole and each member of the staff shall perform all official duties in a nonpartisan manner." As New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley wrote in a June 27 article (subscription required): "Cassidy is hardly nonpartisan. In addition to being chief of staff to a House Republican, he was an aide to the National Republican Congressional Committee and a spokesman for [former President] George H.W. Bush's inaugural committee. Nor is he a lawyer--something Democrats say is intolerable, given the committee's legal sensitivities. '[The committee is] a little law firm down there,' says one House Democrat."
An April 13 Congressional Quarterly Today article reported that Mollohan was "invited to appoint his own chief of staff, Colleen McCarty, as the minority staff director who would share equal power with Cassidy." Mollohan and House Democrats nevertheless refused to consider Cassidy for the position.
According to an April 14 Roll Call article:
According to Democrats, Republicans want to alter the traditional bipartisan makeup of ethics committee staff so that each side has their own "staff director" or top aide on the panel. Under the current structure of ethics committee staff, there is only one staff director -- usually an expert in the field of the Congressional ethics requirements who reports to both sides. Traditionally, the staff director has been able to offer an objective, non-partisan reading of ethics cases to members of the committee.
A June 30 article in The Hill reported that Mollohan and Hastings reached an agreement on June 29 to hire a single staff director approved by a majority committee vote. National Journal's "CongressDaily" reported on November 4 that William V. O'Reilly, a partner at the Jones Day law firm in Washington, D.C., was approved by the committee to serve as "chief counsel/staff director."