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Lowering the bar on ethics?

A series of high-profile challenges to ethical standards by congressional leaders and administration officials has led watchdog groups to complain about a general loosening of standards for public officials' conduct.
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A series of high-profile challenges to ethical standards by congressional leaders and administration officials has led watchdog groups to complain about a general loosening of standards for public officials' conduct.

The latest example is a plan by Republican House leaders to make it more difficult to bring an ethics complaint against a member. Last month, Republicans in the House scrapped an 11-year-old rule requiring party leaders to step aside if they are indicted, allowing Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to keep his job if a state grand jury indicts him in its probe into alleged illegal corporate political donations.

Challenges to ethical standards seem to follow a pattern. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, his administration imposed a five-year ban on lobbying by administration officials after their retirement. Clinton's administration dropped that ban near the end of his second term -- when many officials were about to go into the private sector.

Now, with the Republicans strengthening their hold over the House and Senate, and President Bush winning a second term, it is the GOP that is wrestling with ethics restraints. "When a party is in power for a certain amount of time, they get more lax about ethics," said Celia Viggo Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Common Cause. "You also see a kind of culture growing up that is troubling: If there's a rule that's nettlesome or in your way, just get rid of it."

On Dec. 15, former House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) took a job as top lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. Tauzin and another prominent House member had negotiated jobs for themselves while heading panels responsible for legislation that affected the lawmakers' prospective employers.

The previous week, the White House vigorously defended Bernard B. Kerik, its choice for secretary of homeland security, against conflict-of-interest allegations -- including earning $6.2 million in two years consulting for a company that did business with the Department of Homeland Security. Kerik withdrew only after more personal revelations emerged.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services granted a waiver to a top administration official so he could negotiate a job for himself even while working on legislation that could benefit prospective employers. Meanwhile, a Pentagon civilian official arranged a favorable contract for Boeing Co. before taking a job with the aerospace manufacturer.

'Easing of ethical standards'
Ethics and government accountability groups say these events are a sign of weakening ethical restrictions. "We're seeing an easing of ethical standards and disclosure standards," said Charles Lewis, who runs the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. "They can dress it up any way they want, but they're trying to increase the employment opportunities for their officials."

For example, the Office of Government Ethics has proposed, and Bush supports, legislation to ease financial disclosure requirements for government officials, reducing the amount of conflict-of-interest information that candidates and their families must report. The House recently passed a version of the legislation.

In addition, the ethics office last month issued a new rule, without giving notice or allowing public comment, that would make it easier for retiring administration officials to lobby former subordinates. The OGE says that Cabinet secretaries would still be blocked by other rules and that its changes were routine. But numerous nongovernmental analysts say the changes were a significant loosening of restrictions, a change championed by business interests.

Those who favor reduced disclosure standards say they are trying to help recruit the best candidates to government service. The OGE said its proposed changes would "encourage qualified citizens to answer the call to public service but will not sacrifice the goals of public financial disclosure."

Several experts in the government workforce agree that the problem goes beyond ethical reporting standards and say the source is the growing influence of money in politics. "I don't think the amount of rules and regulations are helping," said Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution. "A lot of people meet the rules but do not aspire to politically ethical conduct. . . . There is this sense that if Tom DeLay can get away with it, so can I."

In line for two jobs
Tauzin, when he was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year, negotiated to take jobs with two major lobbying groups, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; he just took the PhRMA job.

Similarly, Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), being recruited by the Biotechnology Industry Organization this summer, canceled a committee hearing he was to chair on the safety of antidepressants. Greenwood will become president of the biotechnology trade group next month.

Though out of power, Democrats still have ethics issues of their own. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that family members of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have earned more than $1 million over eight years doing business with interests she helped.

The White House has raised objections to some controversial ethical moves. After the Department of Health and Human Services granted a waiver to then-Medicare administrator Thomas A. Scully allowing him to look for a job, Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., issued a memo prohibiting Cabinet agencies from granting such waivers.

But various other ethical controversies have gone unchallenged by the White House. For example, the Center for Public Integrity calculated that nine of the 30 members of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board had ties to companies that won more than $76 billion in defense contracts in 2001 and 2002. Four of the 30 were registered lobbyists. Also at the Pentagon, then-Army Secretary Thomas E. White was scolded by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee because he retained options to buy Enron Corp. stock eight months after he told the company he would divest his holdings.

Now there are probes into the Air Force's controversial lease of Boeing refueling planes. Negotiations were tilted toward Boeing by an Air Force procurement officer, Darleen A. Druyun, who later took a job with Boeing. Druyun and Boeing's former chief financial officer pleaded guilty to ethics charges.

Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, charges that "the administration has been slowly undermining a number of [ethics] rules."

Republicans say nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. "I don't see any loosening of the ethics regulations," said Jan Baran, who runs the law firm Wiley Rein & Fielding's ethics practice and represented former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in his ethics battles. "Those who administer these laws are so numerous they have a trade association now."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, examined the 43 inspectors general appointed by Bush and Clinton. Although the inspectors general -- internal watchdogs in each agency -- are supposed to be nonpartisan, Waxman found that 64 percent of the inspectors general Bush appointed had previous political experience and only 18 percent had audit experience.

'Informal' probes
Stanley Brand, an ethics lawyer who has represented many Democrats, said that, with the exception of complaints against DeLay, both parties on Capitol Hill have stepped back from the barrage of ethics complaints that dominated the 1990s when interest groups were permitted to file complaints against lawmakers. Some of that relaxation was necessary, Brand said. But now, he said, things may have "swung too far the other way."

Brand pointed to a letter made public by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last month warning that it could take "disciplinary action" against a House member if that lawmaker filed an ethics complaint containing "innuendo, speculative assertions, or conclusory statements."

The chairman and ranking Democratic member of the House ethics committee told colleagues in a letter in March that since outside parties were barred in 1997 from filing ethics complaints against lawmakers, the committee had initiated 18 "informal" probes of its own.

Still, the two acknowledged, there is "a perception, however incorrect, that we have taken no action on matters where there is credible information indicating a violation of the rules."