Ethics panel closes Conyers probe; ‘slap on wrist’ criticized
The Republican-led House ethics committee — in one of its last acts before Democrats took over Congress — closed the threeyear investigation of Rep. John Conyers Jr. after he agreed to stop using staffers for campaign work and personal errands.
Mr. Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, acknowledged a “lack of clarity” in his dealing with the taxpayer-financed staffers, who reportedly worked on political campaigns and performed other nonofficial jobs, including babysitting Mr. Conyers’ children and tutoring his wife.
The case against Mr. Conyers was closed without punitive action or a letter of reproval from the Committee on Standards of Conduct, the ethics panel, which is comprised of five Democrats and five Republicans.
Some Republican lawmakers and congressional watchdogs say the “slap on the wrist” for Mr. Conyers raises doubts about new ethics rules that Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, promises for the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress that convened Jan. 4.
“It’s a slap on the wrist, but the fact that they did anything is a big deal for [the ethics committee],” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
She did not expect the committee to be any tougher under Democratic control.
“It is always hard for the party in power to deal with congressional corruption,” she said.
Last month, the ethics committee decided not to take action against Rep. Jim McDermott, despite finding that the Washington Democrat broke ethics rules in 1997 by giving reporters illegally taped telephone calls involving House leaders.
A Republican lawmaker familiar with both cases said Democrats on the committee blocked punitive action against their colleagues.
“It certainly brings into question the Democrats being strong on ethics,” said the lawmaker, who did not want to be identified discussing ethics cases. “In this case [against Mr. Conyers], they are clearly not willing to sanction their own Democratic members.”
Promises of ethics reforms were key to Democratic wins in the midterm elections that gave the party the majority in Congress, but ethical concerns have dogged House Democrats as they pre- pared to take leadership.
Mrs. Pelosi weathered criticism for backing Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, in his illfated run for majority leader. Mr. Murtha was tainted by involvement in the Abscam scandal of the early 1980s.
Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, a West Virginia Democrat who stepped down from the ethics committee last year because he was the target of a federal corruption probe, is slated to head the subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget.
Mrs. Pelosi did not return a call seeking comment.