Rep. Wu and the Meaning of Congressional Ethics Investigations

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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.

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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.

Only 20 members have ever been kicked out of Congress, 15 from the Senate and five from the House, the vast majority of whom were Confederate lawmakers who backed secession. Investigations take months, sometimes years, so if Wu did indeed do what he's accused of doing, it's not as if he'll be punished in the near future.

Lawmakers have survived criminal convictions without resigning from Congress. While the present House Ethics Manual requires that members "conduct themselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House" and "adhere to the broad ethical standards expressed in the Code of Ethics for Government Service," it does not explicitly ban things like non-consensual sex with teenagers.

The committee's power lies in its ability to surface damning or embarrassing facts, which can prompt criminal investigations by the Department of Justice or other law enforcement bodies or, more likely, force a lawmaker from office before the investigation is complete.

Weiner faced an ethics-committee probe that likely would have found him to have violated House rules by photographing himself nude in the House gym, for the purposes of online flirting. But that wasn't what ultimately forced him out.

The difference between Wu and Weiner seems to be photographs. Wu has been accused of something arguably much worse than what Weiner admitted to, but only the aforementioned tiger photo exists as tawdry, Internet-friendly evidence. Photos started and then fueled Weiner's storyline, before a cyclone of media scrutiny, not the threat of an official censure, ultimately caused him to resign.

Wu's case will change, of course, if more information comes out. His accuser reportedly leveled her claim in a voicemail message, which the committee will be able to obtain. The public will probably not hear it unless it is aired at a public ethics-committee hearing, a final step in the ethics-investigation process that isn't always reached.

A Pelosi aide would not disclose whether or not the House minority leader asked Wu to resign, but it's safe to say Democrats probably won't want him around if the charge is in any way true. Scandalized representatives are bad for party business. House Democrats have a particularly high-profile relationship with ethics issues, as they rose to power in 2006 after a series of GOP ethics scandals and the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. Pelosi promised to "drain the swamp," instituting tougher ethics, travel, gift, and lobbying restrictions soon after Democrats took the majority.

Pelosi has not publicly called for Wu's resignation, either, but it won't be surprising to hear her and other lawmakers do so if information surfaces indicating Wu's guilt. Pelosi and others privately urged Weiner to resign and publicly offered those sentiments only after Weiner had not only admitted to online flirtations, but announced he would take a temporary leave from the House, a plan that clearly would not satisfy his critics and many in the public.

In calling for an investigation of Wu, Pelosi sent the thinly veiled message that, if the charge is true, he's not wanted in the halls of Congress. Pressure could mount for his immediate exit depending on what we learn in the coming days and weeks.

Image credit: Getty

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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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