After learning that Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) had an affair with a staffer, two House Republican leaders felt compelled to inform the ethics committee of the matter. Why?
Taking that step appears to be part of a new M.O. when leadership hears about an allegation of misconduct: tell the ethics committee quickly to inoculate yourself and your party against accusations of inaction later on.
“That’s the new standard: the leadership ratting out its members where there’s an allegation of misconduct,” Stan Brand, a former House general counsel, tells TPMmuckraker.
And while Souder’s affair with a staffer is not on its face a violation of House rules, leadership would want to hedge in case there’s more to the story (say, sexual harassment or improper use of taxpayer money), or even against the appearance of condoning bad behavior.
The new standard emerges out of two recent scandals: the allegations earlier this year of sexual harassment of staffers by then-congressman Eric Massa, and the 2006 Mark Foley page sex scandal.
In the Foley case, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican members who knew about Foley’s penchant for “overfriendly” emailing with pages got burned when the news of the scandal finally broke. A steady series of damaging headlines ensued: G.O.P. Aides Knew in Late ‘05 of E-Mail, Lawmaker Saw Foley Messages In 2000, Republicans Huddled for “Damage Control” before Foley Story Broke, etc.
Perhaps that is why Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, when told in February by his staff about allegations of sexual misconduct by Massa, informed Massa’s staffers that if they did not bring the matter to the ethics committee within 48 hours, he would.
That shrewd move, no doubt informed by the Foley train wreck, allowed Hoyer to release a rather triumphant statement when the news of the scandal broke publicly:
“Within 48 hours, Mr. Hoyer received confirmation from both the Ethics Committee staff and Mr. Massa’s staff that the Ethics Committee had been contacted and would review the allegations. Mr. Hoyer does not know whether the allegations are true or false, but wanted to ensure that the bipartisan committee charged with overseeing conduct of Members was immediately involved to determine the facts.”
Says Brand, the former House counsel: “Any time there’s a case, the bar gets lowered. In the Massa case, when the staff went to the majority leader’s office, he felt obligated to bring it to the [ethics] committee. So now the Republicans feel obligated to do the same.”
In the Massa case, Republicans led by Boehner introduced resolutions asking the ethics committee to investigate what Dem leaders knew about the Massa allegations, and what they did about it. The committee now appears to be probing that very question.
Asked by TPMmuckraker why Boehner wrote a letter to the ethics committee on Monday after learning of the Souder affair, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “He believed it was the appropriate course of action.”
We don’t yet know if Souder’s affair with Tracy Jackson was simply an affair, or if there was some violation of House rules.
But the fact that Boehner and Pence notified the ethics committee of the affair could explain what Souder was referring to in his resignation press conference Tuesday when he said: “any legal question would have been clearly resolved and I would have been exonerated.”