Disparate Impact: Black Lawmakers and Ethics Investigations

Another current target, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., was impeached and tossed off the federal bench by Congress in 1989 in connection with a $150,000 bribery case when he was a judge. Recently, he has been tied to two ethics probes, the first as part of a group of lawmakers -- some of whom are white -- accused of pocketing per diem allowances (he was cleared) and another alleging that he sexually harassed a staffer. The Federal Election Commission once levied a fine of $63,000 against a another black lawmaker, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., after he billed his campaign treasury more than $6,000 in personal-trainer expenses, among other things. He is currently under the microscope for failure to disclose a $40,000 payment he said was a loan.

Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, offered little sympathy to his colleagues under review. "When I commanded a battalion, if you had a certain platoon that had some issues, you didn't say that you were picking on that platoon. Maybe there were some issues in that platoon you had to look at," the retired Army lieutenant colonel said.

Sloan argued that the caucus's ethics woes stem in part from job security. African-American members so often represent safe districts and serve for so long that bright moral lines become obscured, she said. A 2010 survey by the University of Minnesota showed that black lawmakers hold 22 of the 50 safest House seats. Indeed, most of those entangled in ethics reviews are long-in-the-tooth, notably Rangel (who took office in 1971), Waters (1991), Hastings (1993), and Jackson (1995). Richardson, elected in 2007, is an exception.

Yvonne Burke, who serves on the OCE's bipartisan board of directors and chaired the Congressional Black Caucus in the 1970s, also suggested that some veteran members' long tenure could explain the disparity -- but for a slightly different reason. "I think members who are there for a long period of time may not keep up with the rules," such as financial-disclosure laws that have tripped up numerous lawmakers, including Rangel, she said. Burke adamantly insisted that race has no part in the office's probes: "I can say that very comfortably."

OUTSIDE INFLUENCES

An unspoken truth in the closed-door world of congressional ethics is that the media and outside watchdog groups mostly set the agenda. Neither the House Ethics Committee nor the Office of Congressional Ethics would discuss its internal procedures on the record. But ethics veterans and lawyers say that the initiation of inquiries is mostly "reactive." Think less of green-eyeshade investigators poring over files in a basement, and more of staffers reading the morning news clips with an eye for the unusual. Budding scandals, once corroborated, evolve into formal inquires.

"Because there [aren't] enough resources in law enforcement and not enough column inches in newspapers, all targeting of subjects is, by definition, selective," Lowell said. Many black lawmakers hail from urban districts in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Historically, these big cities have produced robust investigative-media outlets that can fuel ethics probes. Further, African-American lawmakers tend to be among the most outspoken on the Hill; that's how many earned their political stripes--"therefore, just by definition, making themselves the biggest target of scrutiny of all kinds, the media, ethics, the Justice Department, etc.," Lowell said.

Some, such as Rangel, seemed interested in fighting the charges in public rather than making them go away. He went so far as to challenge ethics investigators to come after him. That can be counterproductive, said well-known Washington lawyer Robert Bennett. "If you go and take your hat in your hand and say you apologize and work out some lesser punishment--which is usually in the form of words--it goes away," Bennett said. Peter Flaherty, among others, works to make sure that doesn't happen.

No single case has ensnared more black lawmakers than a 2008 trip to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. As lawmakers boarded planes for the three-day beachside conference, Flaherty, camera in hand, was close on their heels.

Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, showed up at the meeting, snapped some photos, and handed the exclusive on a corporate-funded junket to the New York Post. (House rules forbid business interests from picking up such tabs; the corporate sponsors of the Caribbean conference hung their banners from the rafters.) The story spread to other media, and soon the ethics watchdogs in Congress had sunk their teeth into a full-blown investigation. Along the way, Flaherty offered up his pictures, audio recordings, and a copy of the program to help make the case.

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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