Pelosi's Next Big Call

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Speaker of the House-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) talk to the media.

Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who stumbled badly last week when she publicly backed the failed candidacy of Rep. John Murtha for majority leader, could be headed for another political tumble if she presses ahead with long-standing plans to elevate Rep. Alcee Hastings, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, to the panel's chairmanship.

A Democratic aide says Pelosi has not decided whom she will name as chairman of the intelligence panel, but that she was leaning against the current top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman. Her preferred nominee has long been Hastings, but like Murtha he has his own ethically challenged history. And while the broad outlines of that past are well known, the grimy specifics are only now emerging.

Hastings was elected to Congress in 1992, but his first big moment on Capitol Hill came three years before that. Appointed as a federal judge in Florida in 1979, Hastings had been acquitted in a 1983 criminal trial on charges of soliciting a $150,000 bribe two years earlier in a deal to provide favorable treatment for defendants in a racketeering case before him. Despite his being legally cleared, Congress determined that the evidence against Hastings was still powerful enough to remove him from the bench, which the Senate voted to do in 1989 — even though Senators Arlen Specter and Jeff Bingaman, the top Republican and Democrat who supervised the proceedings, voted against expelling Hastings from office. The impeachment proceedings were later invalidated by an appeals court judge in 1993, although that ruling was itself later vitiated by the Supreme Court. Reports on those impeachment proceedings were posted Monday evening on the blog of the left-of-center ethics watchdog, Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, fleshing out the details of an episode that Hastings, and surely Pelosi, would much rather forget.

How important is a case dating back to the 1980s and Hastings' prior, ill-fated career as a judge? Well, at least Hastings seems to realize that it won't be so easily dismissed as ancient history. He recently sent Pelosi a five-page open letter explaining his side of the story — and appended the statements of Senators Specter and Bingaman.

At the time of the impeachment proceedings, Rep. John Conyers, on track to become the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that he didn't like what that panel's investigation showed about Hastings. "In my mind, the facts that we have educed, the witnesses that we have heard, the voluminous records that we have read and re-examined, convince me that Judge Hastings has regrettably engaged in conduct constituting high crimes and misdemeanors and that therefore we should vote this resolution of impeachment," Conyers said in the proceeding almost 20 years ago. Befitting the political and legal complexities of the case, Conyers has since tempered his remarks, thanks in part to a subsequent scandal involving the FBI lab which handled some of the Hastings evidence. Still, an aide declined to explain to TIME Conyers' current position.

Pelosi has for quite some time put out signals that she will replace Harman as the top Democrat on the panel in order to maintain a traditional rotation in the spot. But Democratic insiders say her motivation is far more personal — as was Pelosi's support of Murtha against her nemesis of several years, incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Harman defenders say Pelosi's complaints either stem from an unworthy catfight among leading California congresswomen; Harman's close relationship with Hoyer; or Harman's efforts to seem bipartisan on controversial issues such as the Administration's controversial domestic warrantless wiretapping — when Pelosi wanted a Democratic pit bull in the party's top intelligence post.

Moreover, as was first reported on a month ago, Harman has been under investigation by the Justice Department over her links to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and whether they made a deal, in part, to have AIPAC supporters lobby Pelosi to keep Harman on as the Democrats' top member of the committee. Both Harman and AIPAC have vehemently denied they did anything wrong and U.S. officials have said they do not necessarily expect that charges will be brought.

The dusty congressional report on Hastings dates back 18 years and the furtive actions outlined in it are some 25 years old. But details of the seedy tale, as presented in the report, may capture Washington's attention more now than they did the first time around: an intermediary seeking an alleged $150,000 payoff for Hastings, a tipoff to Hastings that an associate had been arrested, followed by a frantic cab ride from Washington to the Baltimore airport — instead of nearby National Airport, allegedly to throw off any possible pursuers.

In the wake of the downfall of intelligence committee Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham — who is in prison after being convicted for his role in a very different scandal, involving alleged seven-figure payoffs by defense contractors — the way Congress handles the Hastings saga should shine still more light on problems with how the two parties appoint and reappoint rank-and-file members of such a sensitive committee. If Democrats found Hastings fit to serve as a member of the intelligence committee at all, many would argue, they should be able to consider him for the chairmanship. As a panel member, Hastings has been deeply immersed in classified information for years, traveling to dozens of the CIA's secret overseas stations and bases, all with no allegation of misconduct in that role (though, to be sure, there have occasionally been Republican whispers that they didn't fully trust him).

Pelosi may have few good options in the current dilemma. If she decides to replace Harman with someone other than Hastings, she could easily offend the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which has insisted that Hastings' seniority entitles him to the position. But some aides have also rumored that there might be another solution: installing a former panel member, Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop, who is also African-American, in place of either Harman or Hastings. Whatever happens, one thing is clear: after her Murtha debacle, Pelosi — and the Democrats, for that matter — cannot afford another misstep so early in her tenure.