Rep. Wu and the Meaning of Congressional Ethics Investigations

Punishment isn't the point. Inquiries can reveal information and pressure lawmakers into early exits.

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Rep. David Wu, the Oregon Democrat whose mental stability came into question earlier this year after revelations about an incident involving a tiger suit and a 1-a.m. email, will now become the latest House Democrat examined by the House Ethics Committee.

Wu stands accused of having an "unwanted sexual encounter" with the teenage daughter of a donor and high school friend last Thanksgiving. It's the latest tidbit to emerge about the bizarre period in which Wu started behaving erratically, leading at least six staffers to quit.

The night before last Halloween, Wu sent a photo (pictured right) of himself in a tiger suit to a female staffer just after 1 a.m. Pacific, from his congressional Blackberry. Wu was behaving loopily in the final weeks of his sixth congressional reelection campaign, according to news reports. He reportedly had angry outbursts and sent strange emails in the voice of his children. Staffers tried to stage two interventions and threatened and threatened to shut down his campaign. When the tiger photo surfaced in February, Wu explained the strange behavior by saying he'd taken painkillers given to him by a donor, after leaving his own pills in Washington. The most recent charge has revived reports that Wu was accused of rape in 1976 by a former girlfriend while he was a student at Stanford, but no criminal charges were filed.


Wu will not resign, though he will not run for reelection in 2012 either.

In a letter Monday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether or not Wu broke any laws or House rules. "With deep disappointment and sadness about this situation, I hope that the Ethics Committee will take up this matter," Pelosi said in a public statement emailed to reporters.

Wu is now the latest in a string of House Democrats to face formal investigations.

Most recently, Pelosi asked the committee to investigate former congressman Anthony Weiner, another Democrat refusing to resign in the face of a sex scandal. In December, Harlem Democrat Charlie Rangel was censured by the full House after a drawn-out committee investigation into his finances, fundraising, and backing of a center in Harlem bearing his name. Since 2009 the committee has been investigating Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) for setting up a meeting between Treasury officials and a bank for which her husband was a board member, as the bank sought bailout money. Last week the committee hired an outside counsel to investigate potential improprieties in its own investigation of Waters, who has asked that the charges against her be thrown out.

The results of an ethics probe aren't always terribly significant. Recently, investigations have functioned more as pressure mechanisms to get a disgraced lawmaker to leave, or as epiphenomena indicating that something has gone horribly wrong, in which case the lawmaker in question will usually resign before the ethics committee has a chance to release its findings or hold a public hearing, as was the case with Weiner. But it's not the investigation itself that matters, usually.

An investigation into Wu means two things: that Pelosi probably wants him gone, and that he may have done something seriously wrong, the seriousness of which outweighs any formal wrist-slaps the House panel can recommend.

The Ethics Committee carries real investigative power, in that it can subpoena documents and testimony, but it can't do much in the way of punishment. It can recommend a punishment to the full House, but, as we saw in Rangel's case, those punishments aren't too severe or meaningful. The committee recommended a "censure" of Rangel, which was allegedly more serious than a "reprimand," neither of which carried any real consequences. Rangel was ultimately censured by the full House, but, as it turned out, the substance of that punishment entailed ... the announcement of punishment. The committee can investigate whether any laws were broken, as is commonly requested of it, but it can't file any criminal charges.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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