Feb. 28, 2008 -- Nearly a week after federal prosecutors indicted a U.S. congressman on 35 felony counts, the members of the House Ethics Committee moved to open an investigation into their colleague.
Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., faces charges of money laundering, extortion and conspiracy, among other offenses. He has maintained his innocence and resisted pressure from Republican leadership to forfeit his seat pending trial.
"I will not resign and take on the cloak of guilt," Renzi said in a statement released Monday.
The ethics committee investigation will be chaired by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif. It will include Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas; Steve Rothman, D-N.J.; and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
The ethics committee's recent history leaves questions as to its efficacy. It authorized a probe of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., in 2006 but has yet to issue public word on the progress of that effort.
"What is it doing? We have no idea," said Naomi Seligman of the Washington, D.C. watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Seligman said her group expects the House panel will likely delay any actual investigation into Renzi until after the Justice Department finishes prosecuting him.
The last significant action by the panel was when it investigated and issued a report on the Mark Foley scandal, involving a former House member who sent unseemly, sexually suggestive messages to teenage former aides.
Critics condemned that report for failing to hold those involved in the scandal accountable. U.S. News and World Report called the panel's findings "a study in pitiful cowardice," while the Houston Chronicle said they "removed all doubt about the House's inability to discipline itself."
Yesterday, the House set aside indefinitely an effort to create a more rigorous, independent ethics body to enforce rules of conduct for House members, due to a lack of support among lawmakers.
House Republican Leader John Boehner, Ohio, had called for Renzi to step down and pressed to meet with the congressman "at the earliest possible opportunity." Boehner's office said Thursday afternoon that the meeting had not yet taken place.