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Investigating the Investigators: How the House Ethics Committee Works

Tickle fights vs. groping. Salty language vs. sexual harassment. For those who've been following the media circus around ex-Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., there's been quite a lot to follow. Nonetheless, on Wednesday the House ethics committee closed its investigation into Massa, claiming his resignation rendered any findings "irrelevant" and put him "outside the reach of any punishment," according to The Washington Post.

This decision has only inflamed the partisan ethics battle within the House of Representatives. Republicans, wanting the probe to continue, criticized Democrats for failing to look into one of their own. Democrats have fired back, defending their record and pointing to a list of Republican members who have breached ethics rules.

All this comes after the same House ethics committee, in the weeks before, cleared seven lawmakers of wrongdoing in a defense-lobbying investigation and "admonished" Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., for violating ethics rules against accepting gifts when he attended conferences in the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008. The investigation into other allegations against Rangel continues, but the committee's recent decisions have brought renewed criticism and attention to it.

The process of ethics investigations is opaque, to say the least, and the reporting around the ethics committee reflects this. So let's take a brief look into the timeline of events and some of the media coverage about the committee.

Massa took office in January 2009. "Not long after," according to the Post, "several male staffers began to feel uncomfortable with the sexually loaded language their boss routinely used." The Post's timeline continues:

As the months passed, rumors began to circulate in the office that the married New York Democrat had sexually propositioned young male staffers and interns -- allegations, according to two sources with knowledge of the inquiry, that included Massa groping at least two aides.

None of this was reported to the committee until at least Feb. 8, 2010. Even as details continued to emerge, most news reports -- the Post's aside -- said the committee was investigating allegations that Massa harassed one aide, not several. The committee's one-line statement last week didn't provide much illumination, confirming only that the panel was, in fact, investigating. No further details were provided.

Until Wednesday afternoon, when the committee announced it was closing its investigation, news reports conflicted as to whether it would continue, given Massa's resignation.

CBS reported that "his resignation means the ethics committee will not investigate his conduct."

But the Post reported differently: "Though Massa has resigned, it is possible that the ethics investigation will continue, according to two sources. The reason for such an inquiry would be to address the circumstances of any hostile work environment." The Post corrected this with a new report hours later.

It's hard for reporters -- for anyone, really -- to figure out exactly what the ethics committee is up to.

Officially called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the committee is a 10-person panel -- half Democrats, half Republicans -- which, according to the Post, "tends to reveal its activities publicly only in rare instances, as when House leaders have already discussed them."

Historically, the committee has done some important work -- exposing crooked dealings, forcing resignations, and imposing fines -- until the aftermath of a 1997 investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich led to "a perceived excess of frivolous complaints and partisan mudslinging," according to The Nation. This led the House to block outside groups from filing complaints, and began a seven-year truce during which both parties agreed not to file ethics complaints. The truce ruptured in 2004 when a complaint was brought against Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader. He was dealt three letters of rebuke -- or "admonishments."

What followed were years of continued political wrangling over the committee, until in 2008, recognizing its own ineffectiveness at policing itself, the House created an independent, six-person ethics board called the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). The OCE was to investigate independently and forward its findings to the ethics committee for further investigation.

This part of the process seems to have worked in recent cases. The OCE referred its findings on Rangel's Caribbean "gift" scandal to the ethics committee in May 2009, complete with findings of fact. The committee issued its findings nine months later. The OCE referred its findings on the defense lobbyist situation in November 2009. The ethics committee cleared the lawmakers three months later. In Massa's case, the complaint does not appear to have gone through the OCE, but instead directly to the House committee.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has recently called the ethics committee "notoriously lax," a description supported by many of its post-truce decisions -- most infamously, its 2006 decision not to take action against House members or staff in the Mark Foley saga.

For now, the partisan battle over ethics continues, which we know historically -- given the truce -- is bad for both sides, and even worse for ethics accountability.