The Ethics Watchdog Making Democrats Squirm

Leo Wise's leadership of the Office of Congressional Ethics has become a lightning rod for Democratic complaints about his aggressive pursuit of corruption

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Melissa Golden for TIME

Congressman Charles Rangel

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What really lit a fire under Wise, though, is the work he did in his final year at the Justice Department. He served as counsel to the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the criminal division, where he worked on the Jack Abramoff cases. Wise calls that "the most direct impetus" for his taking the job at the OCE in October 2008.

Speaker Pelosi created the OCE after the ethics committee, formed in 1967, had become nearly dormant. In the 1980s and '90s, House ethics had devolved into a vicious gotcha game, one that toppled Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 and reprimanded Republican Speaker (and Wright tormentor) Newt Gingrich eight years later. An atmosphere of mutual assured destruction — in which each side threatened to mount politically motivated ethics cases against the other — led to an uneasy bipartisan truce and a full decade in which the ethics committee took virtually no action. In the meantime, members of Congress ran wild. In the aughts, five Representatives were convicted of federal corruption, an additional three were indicted and nearly a dozen were subjects of FBI probes — all while the ethics committee mostly sat on the sidelines. For instance, the panel took no action against former Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham until he was already serving jail time for trading legislative favors in exchange for bribes.

The aggressive approach that Wise has taken on members of Congress's conduct has been unprecedented, leading to charges of overreach. "[The OCE] doesn't follow any known rules of procedure and has not and does not follow the authorizing resolution's rules and directives," says attorney Cleta Mitchell, who has represented a member before the ethics committee. "Abolish the OCE; give to the [ethics] committee the money and staff that the OCE has been given; provide opportunity for outside persons to file ethics complaints in the House [in the same way] as with the Senate. That will make a huge difference, and then we will at least know what the rules are." Wise strongly disagrees. "I think we have made a contribution, obviously," he says. If the OCE were disbanded, "I think there would be a decrease in ethics enforcement in the House and a decline in the public information that's available to the Congress and to the American public concerning ethics enforcement."

Yet some Democrats remain determined to undo their party's most significant ethics reform. Representative Marsha Fudge of Ohio has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by 19 fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), to limit the OCE's power. Fudge, who has complained that the OCE "is currently the accuser, judge and jury," wants to keep OCE reports that don't lead to formal House action from being made public, and would prevent the office from acting on anything but a sworn complaint from an individual with personal knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing. Watchdog groups say those changes would effectively neuter the OCE.

But Pelosi apparently hasn't ruled out such changes. The Speaker met with frustrated CBC members in May, according to a leadership source, and privately indicated that she would be willing to review some ethics rules at the beginning of the next Congress. "The Speaker listened to the concerns of members and stated that all House rules are reviewed at the beginning of every Congress," Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman, told reporters after the meeting. But there's no assurance that Democrats will get to make the rules in the next Congress — not if, come November, the anger over corruption that helped win Democrats a House majority ends up taking it away.

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