Congress Resolves Ethical Dilemmas by Committees: Congressional Integrity

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Staying within the blurry lines of propriety could become of a full-time preoccupation on Capitol Hill. Ethics panels are stepping up efforts to enforce a code of conduct that still appears to be written in pencil.

Think of the House and Senate ethics committees as the congressional versions of icebergs - imposing, silent and potential lethal for anyone navigating the legislative waters without watching carefully where they are going.

Less than a year after Oregon Republican Bob Packwood exited the Senate following an agonizingly long sexual-harassment investigation, his fate - and newly tightened Senate rules concerning acceptance of gifts and post-Senate employment - has made an impression, says Sen. Dan Coats. "The scrutiny of the ethics committee is far more thorough than it used to be," the Indiana Republican tells Insight. "With the new rules that we have, you can hardly make a phone call or go down the hall to use the restroom without calling the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to see if it's cleared. Members are almost paranoid about it."

Past abuses helped bring this about says Coats. At the same time, "a lot of it results from changing expectations on the part of the American people and a higher set of standards." Of course this doesn't always simplify the quality of congressional life. "It's getting to be very complicated because we have to segment our lives between personal activities, campaign activities and official activities. Sometimes those are blurred," says Coats. For instance, he asks, is appearing in a parade back home an official activity for an elected representative, or is it a campaign activity? Does it make a difference if it occurs during an election year? "There are a thousand things over which you have to try to make distinctions to stay within the rules, and it's not always easy."

But for all this concern, the ethics panels - which investigate charges of official misconduct on Capitol Hill - operate silently, forbidden to discuss current business with outsiders. "People tell us these ethics committees operate like grand juries"' says Mark Levin, director of legal policy at the Washington-based Landmark Legal Foundation and a onetime chief of staff for Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese. In terms of secrecy, the comparison is apt, he adds.

Levin's organization filed two complaints in the House last month against Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan. Last December, it filed a Senate complaint against Democrat Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Richard Ben-Veniste, chief minority counsel of the special Senate committee investigating Whitewater - all on behalf of former Resolution Trust Corp. investigator L. Jean Lewis, for whom Landmark is cocounsel.

Last November, Ben-Veniste had surprised Lewis while she was testifying with an excerpt from a personal letter Lewis had written before becoming involved in investigating Whitewater. Ben-Veniste, with the consent of Sarbanes, recovered this private letter from a deleted file on a computer disk provided to the committee in response to a subpoena. Landmark argues that Sarbanes and Ben-Veniste violated Lewis' privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment, as well as various federal, Senate and committee rules.

Nearly five months later, Levin is in the dark about the fate of his complaints. "We have not been asked for any additional information from anybody," Levin tells Insight. The case, he adds, involves "a very important constitutional issue and a question about how a certain senator and staff member are going to conduct themselves during the course of a very important hearing."

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt also has found himself a target of ethics complaints involving his acquisition of a million-dollar beach house. Reports in Insight spurred Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Washington Republican, to file the complaint.

Both ethics committees walk delicate political ground, as was demonstrated by the controversy surrounding the House Committee on Standards of official Conduct's ruling in March that Speaker Newt Gingrich had failed to comply with House guidelines regarding the use of a volunteer in his office. …