After spending six terms in Congress mostly avoiding center stage, Doc Hastings suddenly finds himself under a glaring spotlight. As head of the...
After spending six terms in Congress mostly avoiding center stage, Doc Hastings suddenly finds himself under a glaring spotlight.
As head of the House ethics committee, the Pasco Republican is on the spot to investigate the behavior of Republican leaders who may have known about Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s lurid online communications with or behavior toward current and former congressional pages in the past few years.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. The Foley scandal is threatening the future of House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Republican election hopes for November.
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Some critics are calling for an outside review. They argue that a congressional ethics panel can’t do a credible investigation because of the appearance of conflict of interest.
Hastings, who has held fewer than six media briefings in D.C. since he went to Congress in 1995, appeared at a news conference Thursday to say the panel would move “as quickly as we possibly can” to find out whether House leaders took steps to protect pages.
Hastings, who was appointed to the ethics post last year by Hastert, offered reassurance that the House could investigate itself fairly and fully.
“Simply put, the American people and especially the parents of all current and former pages are entitled to know how this situation was handled, and we are determined to answer their questions,” he said.
California Democrat Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, defended Hastings against charges of partisanship on this committee. “We have ideological and philosophical differences,” Berman said. “But on this committee and for purposes of this investigation, we are going to put those partisan considerations totally aside, as I have seen and witnessed from the chairman during the past 5 ½ months.”
Berman said he had no interest in being part of an “incumbent protection agency” and, with the ethics committee evenly split between the two parties, Democrats don’t want the page investigation to fail.
But one Democratic congressman and some advocacy groups said the panel, officially called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, needs to step aside.
“Since this matter involves the speaker of the House and other high-ranking Republican leaders, it is imperative that an independent, outside investigator be immediately appointed to get all the facts,” said Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
Meehan and a Republican member introduced a bill earlier this year to create an Office of Public Integrity in Congress, because the ethics committee was stalled.
“Given that Hastings was hand-picked by the speaker to replace the last chairman, it would be surprising if Hastings took a tough stand against Republican leaders,” said Bill Allison, of The Sunlight Foundation, which researches the role of money in Congress.
Hastings was given the ethics committee chairmanship in early 2005, after Hastert abruptly dumped the previous GOP ethics chief for leading three motions to admonish Rep. Tom DeLay, of Texas, the powerful GOP majority leader at the time.
In an interview with The Seattle Times last year, Hastings said the Rules Committee, where he also sits, and ethics committee are “really extensions of the leadership.”
Shortly after taking over the ethics panel, Hastings became embroiled in controversy when he insisted his longtime personal staffer, a nonlawyer, be appointed to a top role on the nonpartisan committee, which handles detailed legal cases.
Hastings’ move held up any ethics committee meetings for five months, during which DeLay and three other members of Congress came under investigation by the Justice Department. After a compromise, Hastings’ panel began several reviews of House members late last year.
Speaker Hastert has relied on Hastings and others for some crucial maneuvers on the Rules Committee, which has enormous power over the flow of legislation. Hastings helped add a provision allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the defense-appropriations bill in December, Washington House members Dave Reichert, a Republican, and Norm Dicks, a Democrat, said.
Hastings declined to give a specific time frame for completing the report on the Foley scandal. But Berman said the committee is “looking at weeks, not months” to finish.
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org