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Ethics panels seen shying from action

Despite corruption scandal, lawmakers didn't launch probe

WASHINGTON -- The leaders of the ethics committees in Congress are not committing themselves to any investigation of misconduct despite reports about favors that lobbyist Jack Abramoff won for clients and his largesse to lawmakers.

The committees, for now, are likely to remain on the sidelines.

The House committee, which has been stymied by partisan disagreements, launched no investigations in 2005, even after the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, requested an inquiry into his foreign travel arranged by Abramoff.

The lack of commitment to investigate issues about lawmakers' conduct with Abramoff, his lobbying team and his clients is raising anew the question of whether Congress adequately can discipline its members.

''There have always been questions about whether Congress can police itself," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in ethics. ''The situation in the House removes all doubt. The House is not policing itself."

The four lawmakers who lead the ethics committees were asked whether they would make a commitment to investigate ethical wrongdoing if, as expected, the information Abramoff supplies in a plea agreement exposes misconduct by a number of members of Congress. Each of the four, two Republicans and two Democrats, declined to do so.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is headed by Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington; the top Democrat is Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

The Senate Select Committee on Ethics is led by Senator George V. Voinovich, Republican of Ohio; the ranking Democrat is Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

While the committees have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, forging a bipartisan consensus in ethics investigations has often proved difficult.

After the House levied a $300,000 fine against former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, for ethical violations in 1997 -- payment for part of the cost of investigating his conduct -- weary members of both parties declared an ethics truce. For several years, there were no major cases for several years.

The House committee revived itself in 2004, admonishing DeLay on three separate issues. The House Republican leadership reacted by refusing to extend the term of the chairman at that time, Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado. He had asked to stay on.

Last year, Hastings and Mollohan feuded for months over investigative rules, and then several more months over the composition of the staff.

The entire year was gone before the leaders chose the committee's top staff member; he started work only recently.

Abramoff pleaded guilty this month to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud in Washington, and to additional charges in Miami. He has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The committees traditionally defer to prosecutors, and do not interfere with criminal investigations. But they can investigate violations of standards of conduct that are separate from criminal violations.

Committee actions can range from a critical letter to recommendations of serious punishment by the full House. Such punishment can reach the level of expulsion.

One way Abramoff gave favors to lawmakers was through free travel that he arranged through nonprofit organizations that got money from the lobbyist's clients. DeLay has said he was unaware that Abramoff may have paid for some of his travel.

More than four dozen lawmakers, from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, to Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, sent to federal agencies letters that were favorable to Abramoff clients or that took official actions in Congress to help them.

At about the same time, those lawmakers received large political donations or used Abramoff's skybox or restaurant for fund-raising. Some lawmakers did not provide reimbursement until years later.

Ethics watchdog groups have written the committees alleging that those activities violate congressional ethics standards that require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Congress's response to the budding scandal so far, especially in the House, has been a flurry of proposals to write new laws to control lobbyists' relations with lawmakers. Some specialists say that without an investigation that can lead to discipline, ethics violators get a free pass.

''You have to publicly reprimand someone," said Judy Nadler, the former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., and now a senior fellow at Santa Clara University. ''If there are no consequences, things will not change. This is drive-by ethics."

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