Lax ethics action drives Washington cynicism

? Sometimes I think I’ve gotten too cynical after so many years in Washington.

Then I remember the House Ethics Committee.

This panel almost never fails to disappoint. It tends to be sluggish in its work and supine in its conclusions. But even by its own indulgent standards, the committee reached new heights — lows? — of fecklessness last week as it brushed off complaints about lawmakers’ acceptance of corporate-funded travel.

Most of the focus, understandably enough, was on the panel’s “admonishment” — its feeblest form of discipline — of Charlie Rangel, the beleaguered and soon-to-be-former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel was wrist-slapped because the committee determined that he should have known the Caribbean jaunts he went on with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus were underwritten by corporations, in violation of House rules. The New York Democrat’s most serious ethics problems, trifles such as failing to declare income on taxes and financial disclosure forms, are still — what a surprise! — under review by the ethics committee.

But the Rangel-centric nature of the news coverage obscured the bigger story: the ethics committee’s role as enabler of ethical violations. Remember the furor over lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the lavish golfing trips he furnished for lawmakers? In response to that scandal, Congress tightened its ethics rules in 2007. It barred lawmakers from accepting free travel lasting more than a day if corporations that retain lobbyists underwrite any part of the trip.

Make that supposedly tightened its ethics rules. Last week’s report details how a top lawyer to the then-chairman, the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, served as a kind of tour guide to help sponsors of a November 2007 conference in Antigua find a way around the new restrictions.

Would it surprise you to learn that Tubbs Jones and her sister attended that conference? This is a case of the fox figuring out how to take the chickens on an all-expenses-paid Caribbean vacation.

It’s pretty clear what happened here. The conference, sponsored by the Carib News Foundation, was a sweet annual perk — St. Thomas one year, St. Kitts the next. A member of Congress could get used to this. So when the rules changed, and the conference’s corporate sponsorship threatened to end the fun, the question was: Is there a way to keep it going?

The e-mail and testimony compiled by the ethics committee show how Tubbs Jones’ lawyer, Dawn Kelly Mobley (still working in the House, for Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge), did end runs around the committee’s nonpartisan professional staff. She counseled foundation officials about how to explain that the companies it originally identified as sponsors, including AT&T, Pfizer, Citibank, HSBC Bank and IBM, were not really funding the event after all — just making general donations to the foundation. When a diligent committee lawyer kept questioning the arrangement, Mobley forwarded the lawyer’s internal e-mail to a foundation staffer.

In fact, a solicitation letter promised the companies “prime access to key elected officials through (a) private reception, seating at Luncheon and Dinner, photo opportunities, etc.” The letter included a “cc” to Rangel. Subtle.

So what is the consequence? Exoneration, it turns out, is the last bastion of bipartisanship. Mobley was merely “admonished,” although the report makes clear that she contradicted herself in sworn testimony and gave answers that conflicted with those of other witnesses, minimizing her involvement.

Rangel, who in 2006 had asked the ethics committee if he could solicit corporations to give to the conference, said he was not aware of any corporate sponsorship in 2007 or 2008. But the committee found that Rangel’s staff not only knew about corporate donations, they sent Rangel a memo warning him that HSBC was threatening to pull out of the 2008 conference in St. Maarten due to bad press, advising that AT&T was “holding strong” but was also at risk, and seeking Rangel’s advice. Rangel said he did not recall the memo and did not know what HSBC was. (One of the world’s largest banks.)

The other members, some of whom acknowledged seeing the corporate logos on conference material but paid no attention to that obvious red flag, simply have to repay the cost. Perhaps that’s only fair: After all, they got advance approval from the ethics committee to attend. This fox has no teeth.

— Ruth Marcus is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.