Berman new point man for probes

first_imgWASHINGTON – Howard Berman likes to say he enjoys working on issues that begin with the letter “I”: immigration, intellectual property, India, Iraq. Now the longtime Van Nuys congressman has grudgingly added “investigations” to that list as the Democrats’ reluctant new point man on the House ethics committee. Last week, Berman and Republican Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington launched three major congressional bribery and influence-peddling probes, including one that could expose more details about the Capitol Hill dealings of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The action comes after months of partisan stalemate on the committee, and Berman is being widely credited for ending the impasse. Democrats, though, are taking GOP praise for Berman with a grain of salt. Republicans, they argue, are working overtime to cooperate now merely to blame Mollohan for their own foot-dragging in investigating the growing number of Capitol Hill scandals. Mollohan’s office did not return calls for comment. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised Berman as being “highly regarded for his nonpartisan and judicious leadership” and ethical standards. “That’s why she appointed him,” said Pelosi spokeswoman Brendan Daly. But, he said, noting that Republican leaders changed the House ethics rules to protect former GOP leader Tom DeLay from investigation, “she thinks they were trying to make (Mollohan) the scapegoat.” Added another Democratic observer of Berman, “He’s a wonderful negotiator, but he can’t turn water into wine. The reason they’re able to move forward is because Republicans decided to.” No matter what the reason, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as it is officially known, is on its way to seriously addressing corruption in Congress for the first time in more than a year, and Berman’s decisions will be watched closely. The probes focus on one Republican, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, a top target in the Abramoff investigation, and one Democrat, Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, whom two businessmen described in federal court testimony has having accepted bribes to promote a technology firm’s operations in Africa. The Justice Department already is conducting its own separate investigations of the lawmakers, both of whom have denied wrongdoing. A third inquiry will focus on the potential bribery of lawmakers and staff connected to convicted former San Diego Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Berman and Hastings also agreed not to investigate DeLay’s overseas trips in light of the once-powerful GOP leader’s announcement he will resign June 9. Berman, who has not been shy about his lack of enthusiasm for returning to the job – when named he issued a statement calling it an “honor I could do without” – refused to discuss any investigations. He said he is focused now on getting the work done, relinquishing the post by next year and returning to the policy debates that drew him to Washington to begin with. “It’s a substantial amount of time,” he said of the panel. “It’s quite removed from the issues that affect your district and the issues you’re interested in internationally.” He, like other Democrats, blames GOP leadership for the inaction of the ethics committee over the past 16 months. But he praised Hastings for working cooperatively and said he is hopeful he can help steer the committee back to the bipartisanship he said existed when he and Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, ran it from 1997 to 2002. “The committee functioned well during those six years,” he said. “We avoided partisan confrontations.” Berman has a mixed reputation from his previous reign. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon, who served as special counsel to the bipartisan 1997 House ethics reform task force, recalled Berman as “fair, very open-minded, very concerned about making sure the rules worked well for both sides and very nonpartisan in the way he approached changing the rules.” Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, blames him for signing off on those very rules, which included provisions preventing outside groups from bringing ethics complaints. He also said the committee should have done more at that time to police their peers. “Congressman Berman was another vote for the failure to confront corruption in Congress,” Ruskin said. “He did what other Democrats wanted, which was: don’t police corruption in Congress. He was a go-along kind of guy in a job where you need a leader.” “Last time around, not a lot of scandal was breaking on his watch,” said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the political watchdog group Common Cause. But, she added, “He’s a conscientious guy and a hard worker. He certainly gets some points for breaking the logjam, but he’s also working with a system that we think is irreparably flawed. “It’s very hard to ask members of Congress in a political environment to sit in judgment of each other,” she said. Berman said he agrees. But, he said, he’s also not ready to embrace independent investigations of Congress – which he also opposed in 1997. “You have two other policing mechanisms. One is called elections and the other is called criminal law enforcement,” he said. “The ethics committee fulfills a higher role in imposing a higher standard than the law does.” There, he insisted, Congress is “uniquely qualified” to make sure its members don’t bring discredit upon the institution. Still, he has threatened to leave the committee if Republicans inject partisanship into the investigations, and held out the possibility he might someday endorse independent review boards to police his own club. “I still have some hope that the process can function,” he said. “Ask me at the end of this year.” [email protected] (202) 662-8731160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBasketball roundup: Sierra Canyon, Birmingham set to face off in tournament quarterfinals“I think what we’re seeing is Mr. Berman and Mr. Hastings working together,” said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner. In addition to launching investigations, Hastings and Berman worked to rewrite private travel rules for members of Congress. The rules are pending in the Senate. He and other Republicans blame Alan Mollohan, the panel’s previous leading Democrat – who resigned the post amid his own financial controversy – for the deadlock. Berman, they say, with a reputation as a pragmatic negotiator and six years of previous experience co-leading the committee, has reinvigorated the panel. “When Mr. Mollohan was on the committee, it was not functioning, and now that Howard Berman is on it, it is,” said Jo Maney, spokesman for Glendora Republican David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee. last_img read more