The House and Senate Ethics Committees are supposed to be the two panels in Congress that operate, to the best of their ability, in a nonpartisan way. At least, that’s what they say.
There are plenty of internal committee rules stating that all staff must be non-partisan and abide by rules barring them from engaging in political or partisan activity of any kind. But there is little proof, as TPM has discovered, that anyone is enforcing these rules.
As TPM reported earlier this week, partisan sniping on the panel has undermined any stated ability for the panel to operate in a nonpartisan manner. Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee, led by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), have decided to take in an attorney Democrats on the panel suspended last year amid accusations that she bungled — or alternatively — aggressively pursued the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to the Democrats’ chagrin.
The ongoing tensions and partisan jabs were on public display earlier this week when a private letter, in which Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner (R-AL) accused his Democratic predecessor, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA), of breaking House rules by trying to fire the two attorneys who worked on the Waters case, was leaked to the Washington Post.
In the letter, according to the Post, Bonner said that Lofgren’s decision was unilateral and taken “without cause, in my view,” and that the two staffers - counsels Morgan Kim and Stacey Sovereign - had “acted appropriately and consistent with the highest ethical standards.”
Bonner reinstated the attorneys, he said in the letter, which raises its own questions of whether he is following committee rules requiring staffers to be approved by the full panel at the beginning of the Congress. Kim decided to resign instead and ended up on the Natural Resources Committee in a newly created Office of Oversight and Investigations, which is unique to the panel.
But the Natural Resources Committee had already served as a landing pad for Todd Ungerecht, another House Ethics Committee staffer who was serving as a senior counsel to both the committees simultaneously even as he was investigating the case against Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). Rangel was eventually censured by the full House for a string of ethics violations.
Now, TPM has discovered that Ungerecht made a $250 dollar donation to the Republican National Committee in September 2008. At that same time, Ungerecht was drawing the majority of his salary from the House Ethics Committee.
Ethics committee rules explicitly state that all of committee staff must be non-partisan and refrain from engaging in any congressional or presidential elections.
“No member of the staff shall engage in any partisan political activity directly affecting any congressional or presidential election.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the donation may not be a hard violation of the committee’s internal rules governing nonpartisan behavior because the ethics panel does not define “partisan activity.”
Still, the donation, when coupled with Ungerechts’ previous reported work for the GOP staff of the Natural Resources Committee, “does give the apperance that Mr. Ungerecht is partisan, which violates the rule requiring the committee staff to be ‘assembled and retained as a professional, nonpartisan staff,’” Sloan said.
Waters is accused of intervening on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband owns stock and on whose board he’d previously sat. She has mounted a vigorous, detailed defense, arguing she was acting on behalf of all minority-owned banks, as she has done for other minority interests for years, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight it through a legal defense fund.
Bonner and Hastings did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.