Ethical Dilemma

Friday’s letter from the House Ethics Committee indicates that Billy Martin was asked “to review allegations that this Committee violated due process rights or rules attaching to Representative Waters.” Martin was also asked “to address whether recusal of any Members of the Committee should be considered and when would be the most appropriate time for his recommendations regarding recusal.” Martin apparently advised initially that recusal decisions should wait until he completed his due process review.

For reasons I suggested in August, I think this was the wrong approach. Whatever “due process violations” may have occurred, they should not prevent the Committee from moving forward with the Waters case so long as appropriate steps are taken to remove the taint of any past violations. Most obviously:

As a practical matter, it seems almost inevitable that Martin will recommend that some members of the Committee be recused from future involvement in the Waters case. Whether or not Martin agrees with or can substantiate Chisam’s allegations, recusal would help to ensure public confidence in the process and remove any potential taint from the prior proceedings. Rather than further delaying the Waters proceeding while he tries to untangle the legal and factual aspects of the alleged ex parte communications, it would make more sense for Martin to figure out who ought to be recused in order for the matter to move forward.

Because Martin’s due process review has been stymied by a “necessary witness” taking the Fifth, he has decided that now would be a good time to make recusal decisions after all. Accordingly, six current Committee members (all five Republicans plus Ranking Member Sanchez) have decided to recuse themselves from the Waters matter, and substitutes have been appointed from outside of the Committee. These six substitutes, plus the four other Democrats who are currently on the Committee (but did not serve on the Committee in the last Congress), will form a kind of substitute committee for purposes of the Waters case.

Does this mean that the Committee is going to take my advice and move forward with the Waters matter? Maybe . . . but I wouldn’t count on it. If they try to advance the Waters case without resolving the due process issues, Stan Brand (Waters’s counsel) will raise holy hell. And if the Committee tries to argue now that the due process issues do not need to be resolved, it will be a little hard to explain why more than six months and hundreds of thousands of tax dollars were spent trying to resolve them.

The other option is for the Committee to try to force the “necessary witness” to testify. It could do this by obtaining a grant of immunity under 18 U.S.C. § 6005. But there is a problem with this too. A grant of immunity requires a two-thirds vote of the full Committee. Who would be counted for purposes of the vote? Do the recused members count?

Even worse, there would seem to be a serious question as to the legality of the substitute appointments. The appointments were made under House Rule XI, clause 3(b)(5), and Committee Rule 9(e), which state that a member of the Ethics Committee may disqualify himself or herself “upon the submission in writing and under oath of an affidavit of disqualification stating that the member cannot render an impartial and unbiased decision in the case in which the member seeks to be disqualified.” One assumes that no such affidavits were submitted here because the Committee’s letter states that the recused members “believe that they each can render an impartial and unbiased decision in any proceeding related to this matter.”

Maybe there is another way around the problem, but I think the substitute committee will eventually need either (1) agreement from Waters and/or the necessary witness not to object to the composition of the committee or (2) a resolution of the House approving the appointment of the substitute committee. Otherwise any way forward is going to face even more procedural obstacles.

So what happens now? I am not sure, but the path of least resistance may be for the substitute committee to use other tools to pressure the necessary witness to cooperate. If the witness is whom I think, there are such tools available. But its going to be difficult road however they proceed.

Its another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley.



DC Bar Opinion on the Ethics of Congressional Lawyers

In 1977, the Legal Ethics Committee (LEC) of the D.C. Bar, interpreting the Code of Professional Responsibility (the predecessor to the Rules of Professional Conduct), opined that an attorney serving as counsel to a congressional committee was prohibited by the disciplinary rules from requiring a witness to appear at televised hearings when the committee had been notified in advance that the witness would refuse to answer questions based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  See Michael Stern, Ethical Obligations of Congressional Lawyers, 63 N.Y.U. Annual Survey of American Law 191, 192, 207-08 (2007).

This opinion has long caused consternation among congressional committees and their lawyers.  Among the objections to it: (1) there are legitimate reasons why a committee may wish to call a witness to testify notwithstanding an indication that he or she will assert the privilege against self-incrimination; (2) the D.C. Bar has no authority to regulate the proceedings of congressional committees; and (3) the decision of whether or not to subpoena a witness, or to close a hearing, belongs to the committee, not to staff lawyers.

The LEC has now issued Opinion No. 358 (Jan. 2011), which responds to a request to vacate the 1977 opinion.  (Although the source of the request is not identified, I believe it was former House Counsel Irv Nathan).  The LEC analyzes the issue under the current rules and concludes that there is no basis to vacate the prior opinion.  In doing so, however, it both qualifies and perhaps extends the reach of the opinion in notable ways.

Opinion No. 358 acknowledges, as did the 1977 opinion, that the LEC’s “jurisdiction is confined to rendering opinions on the applicability of the ethics rules to the conduct of staff attorneys acting in their capacities as attorneys.”  Thus, the opinion presumably does not apply to Members of Congress, even though many are lawyers and some may be members of the D.C. Bar.

Nevertheless, the LEC reiterates that a committee staff lawyer may violate the ethical rules if he or she participates in calling a witness who has asserted an intention to plead the Fifth.  According to Opinion No. 358, such conduct potentially violates Rule 4.4(a), which states that “a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person,” and Rule 8.4(d), which prohibits a lawyer from “engag[ing] in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice.”

According to Opinion No. 358, the rules are not violated simply by the fact that a witness who intends to assert the Fifth is subpoenaed to do so in an open hearing.  Instead, a violation occurs only if the sole purpose of calling the witness is to degrade or harass.  The opinion implicitly acknowledges that there are circumstances in which this is not the sole purpose of calling the witness to appear in public, although it does not provide much guidance on what those circumstances may be.

This is a significant qualification to the 1977 opinion, which has generally been understood to hold that it is per se improper to require a witness to appear in a public hearing if he or she has stated an intention to plead the Fifth.  Thus, while Opinion No. 358 purports to reaffirm the 1977 opinion, it arguably makes it more difficult for a witness to use it as a basis for refusing to appear (the LEC expressly declines to opine on whether it is ever appropriate for a witness to invoke the opinion as a basis for refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena).

On the other hand, there are aspects of Opinion No. 358 which could raise new problems for congressional lawyers.  I will discuss those in my next post.