Ethics Process in Need of Overhaul, Panel Member Says: Urges Tighter Scrutiny, Penalties for Groundless Complaints

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The House in the next few months aims to overhaul its ethics-review process by discouraging groundless complaints and weeding out weak charges before they gather political steam.

Pushing for change is Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican, who chaired the ethics subcommittee that just wrapped up a two-year probe of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The House reprimanded Mr. Gingrich on Tuesday and fined him $300,000 for sending the ethics panel inaccurate information and failing to properly guard against the possible violation of tax laws.

As a participant in the highly charged Gingrich case, Mr. Goss has some new ideas he believes the House might consider.

"My experience has broadened considerably," Mr. Goss said yesterday. "I think we need to adjust the entire process, from the front door to the back exit and everything in between."

One idea, which has the support of Mr. Goss and at least three other ethics panel members, is to penalize those who file groundless complaints.

"One cloakroom joke and two newspaper articles do not constitute grounds for a complaint," Mr. Goss said.

He said the ethics committee should review complaints for legitimacy and raise the standard for appointing an investigative subcommittee. Currently, the full committee may appoint an investigative subcommittee if there is "reason to believe" a member violated the rules.

"I can look at the Farmer's Almanac and say that I have a reason to believe it's going to rain today," Mr. Goss said. "There should be some credible evidence before we investigate a member."

But some members worry that punishing members for groundless complaining will discourage all complaints.

"After the fact, it's frivolous, but at the beginning, how do you know?" said Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and a former ethics panel member who now heads the House Oversight Committee.

"Isn't that pretty chilling, that you may be fined if they find out it's frivolous?" Mr. Thomas said. "I don't think you have to go that far. For instance, you always can have a way of dealing with repeat offenders."

Mr. Goss said the ethics committee, which is composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, would have to vote that a complaint is groundless. "We're not going to beat up the person who filed a marginal complaint," he said.

Besides serving on the ethics committee, Mr. Goss chaired a bipartisan panel of the House Rules Committee in the previous Congress, which came up with a new ethics proposal.

Though the House did not change the ethics process last year, Mr. …