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Who is the House Ethics Committee Actually Investigating?

The Hill reported yesterday that “[t]he House Ethics Committee has launched a formal investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.)”  

One can understand how the Hill reached this conclusion.  The resolution adopted by the House Ethics Committee states that the Chair and Ranking Member “have been jointly engaged in an investigation concerning alleged or actual misconduct on the part of former Representative Eric Massa including actions that were offensive, inappropriate, created a hostile work environment, or were otherwise in violation of laws, rules, regulations or other standards of conduct.”  It goes on to note that “the conduct of a current or former Member, officer, or employee of the House . . . may have violated one or more laws, rules, regulations, or other standards of conduct . . . .”  (emphasis added).  This certainly sounds as if the Committee is investigating Massa and the sexual harassment allegations against him. 

The problem is that Massa resigned in March, and the Committee has consistently taken the position that it loses jurisdiction over a Member once he or she resigns.  See, e.g.,  Statement of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in the Matter of Representative Vito Fossella (Dec. 19, 2008) (“Representative Fossella did not seek re-election, and the Committee will lose jurisdiction over him when his term expires on January 3, 2009.”); Investigation of Allegations Related to Improper Conduct Involving Members and Current or Former House Pages 78 (Dec. 8, 2006) (“Rep. Kolbe is retiring from the House at the end of his term, and will no longer be within the Committee’s jurisdiction after his retirement.”);   Investigation of Certain Allegations Related to Voting on the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 57 n. 158 (Sept. 30, 2004) (“Due to Representative Smith’s retirement, the Committee will lose jurisdiction over Representative Smith at the end of this Congress.”). 

Moreover, the language quoted from the resolution above was all contained in the “Whereas” clauses.  When one gets to the “Resolved” Clauses, which actually establish the Investigative Subcommittee, there is no language conferring jurisdiction on the subcommittee to investigate former Members, officers or employees.  The resolution states simply that the subcommittee is established “with jurisdiction to conduct a full and complete inquiry into whether the conduct of any Member, officer, or employee violated any law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct applicable to the performance of their duties with respect to the allegations of misconduct recited above.”  Given the resolution’s previous express reference to “former” Members and the Committee’s historical position with regard to its jurisdiction, it seems unlikely that this language was intended to confer jurisdiction over Massa himself. 

Thus, despite the (perhaps intentional) ambiguity of the Committee’s resolution, it is probably not conducting an investigation of Massa or his alleged misconduct, except to the extent that such misconduct is relevant to any violations by the real targets of the investigation—those hapless individuals who may be found, as in the Mark Foley investigation, to have been insufficiently vigorous in reporting or otherwise acting on their knowledge of the former congressman’s misconduct.

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