Disparate Impact: Black Lawmakers and Ethics Investigations

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All told, investigators probed six black members for two different island jaunts. All but one were ultimately cleared of knowingly receiving a corporate-paid trip. The exception was Rangel, whose staff was proven to have known that corporations were footing the bill; he was admonished.

Flaherty, who served as chairman of Citizens for Reagan in the 1980s, said that House ethics investigators would not have been aware of the trip if not for his efforts. "The only way an outside group like our own can get any traction is if you get it out into the media bloodstream, and then the Ethics Committee can't ignore them," he said.

The National Legal and Policy Center has proved particularly adept at using the media echo chamber, especially through its almost symbiotic relationship with the New York Post. The group pushed portions of the Rangel probe that led to his censure (including dispatching a Spanish-speaking sleuth to the Dominican Republic to investigate his property there). More recently, the center has been digging into Meeks's finances. Flaherty openly bragged about placing pieces critical of Meeks in The New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News.

"They know how this game is played," Meeks said in an interview, predicting his eventual full exoneration. "They know what they're doing, and they manipulate it to the fullest extent." He emphasized that "a disproportionate number" of the center's recent targets -- those on the Caribbean trip, Rangel, himself and, before that, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Sr. -- are black.

Flaherty defended his track record, saying that the misdeeds he uncovers are real. "We've hit plenty of white crooks," he added, naming past reports on former Rep. Alan Mollohan and Pelosi, both Democrats.

Other groups have effectively used the media to pressure the formal ethics watchdogs, including Sloan's organization (which asked for a probe into Richardson last summer, releasing a file of internal staff emails about performing errands and campaign work for the lawmaker) and Judicial Watch (a conservative group behind the sexual-harassment lawsuit against Hastings that evolved into an ethics case).

Flaherty makes no apologies for his role. "They really are influenced by the forces around them," he said of congressional ethics officials. "Left to their own devices, they'd probably do nothing."

BALANCING THE SCALES

It's important to note that white lawmakers on the Hill have not escaped scrutiny.

The Ethics Committee is currently examining Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., for omitting information from financial disclosure forms. In December, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee referred the names of four lawmakers (three white, one black) to the Ethics Committee for allegedly receiving favorable loans from mortgage lender Countrywide. The Ethics panel has issued no word about a formal probe.

Meanwhile, freshman Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a former FBI agent, faces a budding scandal after a New York Times exposé about improper campaign contributions spurred calls for inquiries by the Ethics Committee and the Justice Department. Other white lawmakers who have come under scrutiny in recent years -- notably, ex-Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and ex-Reps. Eric Massa and Anthony Weiner, both D-N.Y. -- have resigned rather than face an ethics investigation. More cases are in the pipeline.

Records show that the Ethics Committee had dozens of unnamed, active cases at the end of 2011 and that the Office of Congressional Ethics had undertaken eight preliminary inquiries in the fourth quarter of 2011.Only one name has surfaced, that of Rep. Spencer Bachus, a white Alabama Republican, who is under investigation for insider stock trading. The new cases may begin to balance the scales, but for African-Americans lawmakers such as Cleaver, the palpable sense of mistreatment lingers.

"It makes," Cleaver said, "for an uncomfortable feeling as you walk these halls."

Image: Chet Susslin / National Journal

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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