- Rep. Joel Hefley heads the House Ethics Committee, which has launched only one investigation since he became chairman in 2001.
Corrupt members of Congress can sleep soundly at night knowing that Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican, heads up the committee charged with investigating ethics violations in the House of Representatives.
So say several congressional watchdog groups, conservative and liberal, that joined forces last week to denounce a "breakdown" in enforcement of House ethics rules.
The groups range from conservative Judicial Watch, known for its profuse lawsuits against Bill and Hillary Clinton, to liberal-leaning organizations such as Public Citizen and Common Cause.
According to the organizations, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- known as the House Ethics Committee -- has investigated only five cases of alleged ethics violations in the past seven years, while failing to look into more than a dozen other publicized cases. The committee has launched just one investigation since Hefley became its chairman in 2001.
A tacit, bipartisan agreement among House members to not press investigations against one another has left ethics enforcement "effectively dead," the groups charged, calling for an overhaul of enforcement rules.
"The ethics oversight process in the House is completely paralyzed," the groups declared in a joint statement. "For years, serious allegations of wrongdoing have been neither investigated nor punished."
As of press time, Hefley had yet to respond to the groups' call for change, made in a news conference last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Hefley's spokeswoman, Sarah Shelden, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Thirteen alleged cases
Though watchdog groups have complained for years that the Ethics Committee is toothless, the news conference appeared to be triggered by several recent, highly publicized ethics scandals.
Last November, Rep. Nick Smith, a Michigan Republican, made statements indicating that GOP leaders had promised $100,000 for the congressional campaign of his son, Brad Smith, in return for the elder Smith's "yes" vote on a Medicare reform bill.
After months of media scrutiny and an outcry from Democratic congressional leaders, Hefley announced last month that the Ethics Committee would look into the alleged bribery attempt.
Meanwhile, the committee has ignored calls to issue an opinion on the legality of a controversial fund-raising scheme by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. DeLay plans to raise money for a charity, Celebrations for Children, by promising wealthy donors special access to members of Congress during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
In yet another recent case, the Ethics Committee has refused to launch an investigation in response to reports that the corporation Westar Energy sought congressional favors in return for campaign contributions.
Altogether, 13 cases of alleged ethics violations have gone uninvestigated since 1997, seven of them involving Democratic members of Congress and six involving Republicans, according to the watchdog groups. Eight of those cases occurred during Hefley's chairmanship.
The watchdog groups now demanding changes are blaming, in part, a 1997 change in the Ethics Committee's rules. Before, anyone could file an ethics complaint against a member of the House. Now, only members of the House can file complaints -- something they have proved loath to do.
"No one likes to go after their colleagues," observed Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Common Cause. "No one wants to be seen as a tattletale."
Indeed, members of the House are said to have a rather overt "sweetheart deal" to not investigate each other.
"Both Republicans and Democrats don't want investigations of corruption in Congress -- so they don't have them, because they get to set the rules," said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. "We now have a House Ethics Committee that basically doesn't do investigations anymore. It creates a climate where corruption is increasingly possible."
The watchdog groups are calling for a return to the former practice of allowing outside groups and individuals to file complaints, as well as an end to the ethics "truce" among members of the House.
Moreover, they say, the Ethics Committee needs to show leadership. That's where Hefley comes in.
The committee may already have been a paper tiger when Hefley became its chairman, but that's no excuse for his inaction, critics charge.
"There's no question that Joel Hefley came to a table that was already set, but he has the power to change that," said Mark Glaze, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance advocacy group.
Even if the rules for filing ethics complaints remain unchanged and House members continue their truce, the Ethics Committee still has the authority to launch investigations on its own.
"Congressman Hefley has a high responsibility because of his position," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "He has the ability on his own, through the committee, to initiate investigations, to publicize them appropriately. And he hasn't done it. He's a key link in the chain of failure of the House ethics process."
-- Terje Langeland
In the bag
Hefley barely raising funds for upcoming election
Hefley barely raising funds for upcoming election
With a safe seat representing an overwhelmingly Republican district, Colorado Springs GOP Congressman Joel Hefley doesn't really have to spend time raising campaign contributions.
Reports filed last week show that Hefley, who this fall plans to run for a 10th term in Congress, has raised only $26,152 so far for his campaign -- by far the lowest amount raised by any incumbent congressional representative from Colorado.
Hefley doesn't seem to feel the need to spend much of the money on traditional campaigning, either. The reports show that since the beginning of last year, he has spent almost $5,000 of his campaign funds to lease a vehicle, and another $1,100 to pay for auto insurance.
Hefley gave away another $2,000 to the El Paso County Republican Party, and $1,000 to Virginia Johnson, who is running for Congress in North Carolina.
He also spent a total of $786 to fly his wife, Lynn Hefley, to Washington, D.C., twice. And, he spent $300 on membership dues at the Capitol Hill Club, a private club for Republican powerbrokers in the nation's capital.
Using his campaign cash for such items is not necessarily illegal. The vehicle expenses are legal as long as the vehicle is being used primarily for campaign activities, according to federal regulations. Giving money to another political organization or campaign is also permitted, and both Lynn Hefley's airfare and the membership at the Capitol Hill Club might be justified as campaign-related expenses, experts contacted by the Independent said.
"I think he's probably OK," said Paul Sanford, a former lawyer with the Federal Elections Commission, who now works for the Center for Responsive Politics, which posted Hefley's reports on the Web site www.opensecrets.org.
Hefley himself did not respond to phone calls seeking clarification on whether the expenses in question were campaign-related.
So far, the only candidate to declare a run against the congressman this fall is Democrat Michael Dougan, a 25-year-old political newcomer who works at Target.
-- Terje Langeland