Courtney named to ethics committee just in time for fresh scandal

WASHINGTON–After a quiet lobbying campaign by his Democratic colleagues in recent weeks, Rep. Joe Courtney finally acquiesced to their request: He agreed to fill a looming vacancy on the House ethics committee, a politically dicey assignment that requires him to sit in judgment of his congressional colleagues.

But just as Courtney took up his new task this, a fresh scandal erupted–not one involving charges that a House member violated the congressional ethics rules, but one involving the committee itself. With allegations swirling about improper conduct behind the ethics panel’s closed doors, good-government watchdogs are calling for an investigation of the committee’s chairman, and possibly more far-reaching steps.

Courtney is suddenly knee-deep in the panel’s dysfunction and partisanship. And its most contentious, high-profile case–involving ethics charges filed against Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat–has landed in his lap.

Asked if he had been briefed on the committee’s inner workings–or lack thereof–before the latest news hit, Courtney said no. “It almost coincided with my first day,” said Connecticut’s 2nd District Democrat. “You’ve pretty much just got to jump in cold turkey.”

The cold turkey on his plate right now includes allegations, reported by Politico on Monday, that two former professional staffers on the ethics panel improperly shared information about the Waters case with Republican aides, and possibly even the committee’s top GOP lawmaker, Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama. Their alleged goal was to give Republicans fodder against Waters and a second Democrat, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who was facing separate ethics charges at the time.

The two staffers have denied doing anything improper and said that Democrats on the committee were going easy on Waters and Rangel. All the staffers involved in those charges and counter-charges have since moved on to other jobs.

But the scandal and resulting stalemate remains–and indeed, seem to be mushrooming. Waters is now asking the ethics committee to dismiss her case, saying the proceedings have been tainted and have jeopardized her right to a fair trial. The committee was reportedly set to meet this week to proceed with the Waters case, which began in the previous Congress.

Courtney said he didn’t know anything about the new allegations reported by Politico. And he couldn’t comment on it if he did. He couldn’t even say whether the committee had met yet this week to discuss the matter.

“There’s a pledge you sign the minute to you sit down at the table… a vow of silence,” he said, adding that he’s not allowed to discuss pending ethics matters with his staff, his family or anyone else.

Given the sudden cloud over the committee, is he having second thoughts about joining? “No,” Courtney said. “It was something you had to think about it. This is a committee that’s pretty time consuming, and it’s fraught with lots of challenge.”

But, he added, “it’s essential to whatever level of confidence people can have in a democratic body. So despite the challenges, I made the decision to say yes. And now I’m actually looking forward to it.”

“Brave man,” quipped Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., when asked about Courtney’s decision to accept the slot.

Said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington: “It’s the least popular committee in Congress and you can understand why. It’s controversial, you’re sitting in judgment of your colleagues, and you do nothing beneficial for your district.”

If that weren’t enough, Sloan added that right now, the panel is “completely unable to do anything.”

The committee’s paralysis isn’t new. In the 111th Congress, Waters was charged with improperly intervening, during the 2008 financial meltdown, in favor of a bank in which her husband owned stock-charges that she has vehemently denied.

The committee delayed action on her case last fall, with news reports at the time suggesting that new evidence had been unearthed. But the Politico story suggests that the “new evidence” was the alleged staff misconduct. The two staff members were supposed to be nonpartisan, and ethics rules bar them from unauthorized communication with the partisan staffers on the panel.

The chairwoman at the time, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, put the two aides on administrative leave last fall. The GOP chairman tried to intervene on their behalf, a tussle that featured a short-lived “lockout” of the committee offices.

Courtney conceded that the panel appears to be mired in problems.”There’s nowhere to go but up,” he said, “and if we can get a functioning committee, that would really help our country.”

An ethics committee spokesman did not respond to a voicemail and email requesting comment for this story.

Courtney agreed to take the post after being asked by the panel’s current ranking Democrat, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif, and the lawmaker who gave up her seat, Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. Hirono announced she was stepping down from the panel earlier this year, because of her bid for U.S. Senate. She said she wanted to make sure her bid didn’t become “fodder” for politicization of the panel’s work.

Sloan said she wasn’t familiar enough with Courtney’s record to comment on what he could bring to the panel. “He could be the most wonderful human being on earth, and the committee has had such serious problems for so many years now, and I don’t see those problems diminishing,” she said.

She said the panel needs to hand over the Waters case to an independent counsel who should start from scratch. And it should also move for an independent inquiry into the handling of the Waters and Rangel cases, including the allegation that the current chairman was among those who improperly received information from the two former staffers.

“It’s just such a disaster,” she said. “You need an investigation of the people who were doing the investigating. With those level of problems, the committee really needs to be reconstituted.”

Courtney said he couldn’t comment on questions about how the committee should proceed with the Waters case or anything else. But he said he was optimistic about the panel being able to emerge from the current set of allegations as a more functional, trustworthy body.

“It’s a committee that always has challenges, and I hope that I can do my best to improve on its record,” he said. “My approach as a member is just to roll up my sleeves and use my best judgment and do my homework and do what I can to raise the bar.”