Racial Disparity: All Active Ethics Probes Focus on Black Lawmakers

John Bresnahan, Politico, November, 2009

The House ethics committee is currently investigating seven African-American lawmakers–more than 15 percent of the total in the House. And an eighth black member, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), would be under investigation if the Justice Department hadn’t asked the committee to stand down.

Not a single white lawmaker is currently the subject of a full-scale ethics committee probe.

The ethics committee declined to respond to questions about the racial disparity, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus are wary of talking about it on the record. But privately, some black members are outraged–and see in the numbers a worrisome trend in the actions of ethics watchdogs on and off Capitol Hill.

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African-American politicians have long complained that they’re treated unfairly when ethical issues arise. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are still fuming over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to oust then-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from the House Ways and Means Committee in 2006, and some have argued that race plays a role in the ongoing efforts to remove Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) from his chairmanship of that committee.

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The committee–which has one African-American lawmaker, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), among its 10 members–on Thursday considered three referrals from the recently formed Office of Congressional Ethics. It dismissed a case against Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who is white, but agreed to open full-blown investigations of California Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Laura Richardson, both of whom are black.

The committee was already investigating five other African-Americans. Rangel is the subject of two different probes, one involving a host of issues he has put before the committee and another involving allegations that corporate funds may have been used improperly to pay for members’ trips to the Caribbean in 2007-08. Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) are also included in the second of those investigations.

A document leaked to The Washington Post last week showed that nearly three dozen lawmakers have come under scrutiny this year by either the House ethics committee or the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog created in 2008 at the insistence of Pelosi. While the list contained a substantial number of white lawmakers, the ethics committee has not yet launched formal investigative subcommittees with respect to any of them–as it has with the seven African-American members.

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Setting up the OCE “was a mistake,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told The Hill newspaper recently. “Congress has a long and rich history of overreacting to a crisis.”

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Another CBC member said black lawmakers are “easy targets” for ethics watchdog groups because they have less money–both personally and in their campaign accounts–to defend themselves than do their white colleagues. Campaign funds can be used to pay members’ legal bills.

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But these same groups won’t go after Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), this lawmaker claimed, “because she has plenty of money to defend herself,” and the outside groups don’t want to take a risk. The Democrat said the ethics committee would be going up against Harman’s lawyers and “going up against” the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee if they push the OCE to pressure the ethics committee to act.

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White lawmakers have certainly been the subject of ethics committee investigations before. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was admonished by the committee for his dealings with corporate lobbyists, while ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was the target of an investigation over his dealings with teenage male House pages in late 2006. Foley resigned after the sex scandal was revealed.

And the document leaked to the Post last week shows that a number of white lawmakers–including senior House Appropriations Committee members John Murtha (D-Pa.), Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.)–have drawn the attention of the committee and the OCE.

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The nation’s only black senator, Roland Burris of Illinois, is currently under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. It’s not clear whether that committee is currently investigating any white members, although Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is likely to be in its sights if the Justice Department doesn’t pre-empt a committee investigation.

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