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Ethics Panel Prejudges Rangel Case?

1:16 PM, Jan 29, 2009 • By BRIAN FAUGHNAN
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently chose to reconstitute the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (the Ethics Committe) with new members. That means that the panel investigating Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel has to start from scratch. While one of the new members -- Vermont's Peter Welch -- recognizes that having accepted donations from Rangel creates the appearance of a conflict of interest (or an actual conflict of interest), one of his colleagues sees no problem:

An aide to Peter Welch of Vermont says he will return funds he received from Rangel, D-N.Y., who is under investigation by the ethics panel for alleged improprieties with his fundraising and personal finances. But G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina will not, according to his staff...

Butterfield spokesman Ken Willis, meanwhile, said the most recent $1,000 contribution from Rangel to Butterfield came last March, "well before the congressman even considered being on the ethics committee."

"There is no way that the contribution made so long ago will have any effect on his decision making," Willis said. Butterfield also received a total of $3,000 from Rangel's leadership PAC in 2004.

The common practice of eliminating possible conflicts of interest is only partly about ensuring a fair investigation. It's also about doing everything possible to demonstrate to the public that the investigation was fair. Further, it's hard to take Butterfield's nonchalance as anything other than a sign that he doesn't think Rangel has done anything seriously wrong. After all, if he thought there was any chance the committee might recommend a stiff sanction, he would want to put some distance between himself and the ethically-compromised chairman.

Didn't Speaker Pelosi promise to drain the swamp, and deliver the highest ethical standards for Congress? That ought to at least allow for the possibility that the members of the Ethics Committee might do their jobs.