House Ethics may not have jurisdiction to investigate Tony Cárdenas molestation allegations

The alleged incident could be too long ago for lawmakers to have jurisdiction.

May 8, 2018, 7:08 PM
Rep. Tony Cardenas speaks during the House Democrats' news conference on their "A Better Deal" agenda, July 25, 2017.
Rep. Tony Cardenas speaks during the House Democrats' news conference on their "A Better Deal" agenda, July 25, 2017.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Despite a request from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for the ethics committee to probe allegations of sexual battery and sexual assault against Rep. Tony Cárdenas, the panel may not have the investigative jurisdiction to examine the matter.

Cárdenas, a third-term California Democrat, identified himself through an attorney as the subject of a civil suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on April 27 by attorney Lisa Bloom. That complaint alleges that in 2007 an "elected politician" – which Cárdenas acknowledges through an attorney is him – molested an unnamed 16-year-old girl.

Pelosi said she spoke with Cárdenas, who asked his fellow Democrats to withhold judgment until there is a full investigation. Instead, she urged the House Ethics Committee to look into the allegations.

“As Members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives, and any type of alleged misconduct must be investigated by the Ethics Committee. Congressman Cárdenas said he will fully cooperate with an Ethics investigation,” Pelosi, D-Calif., stated. “I call upon the House Ethics Committee for a prompt investigation of this matter.”

House rules, however, limit the ethics committee’s investigative jurisdiction, precluding it from undertaking violations that “occurred before the third previous Congress unless the committee determines that the alleged violation is directly related to an alleged violation that occurred in a more recent Congress.”

Because lawmakers are currently in the 115th session of Congress, the “third previous Congress” would be the 112th Congress, cutting off the committee’s jurisdiction in January of 2011.

Unless the molestation allegations are “directly related” to an additional allegation that occurred after the start of the 112th Congress, House Ethics cannot investigate the child molestation allegations against Cárdenas because they happened too long ago. Cárdenas is not known to face any more recent alleged violations.

Tom Rust, chief counsel and staff director at the House Ethics committee, declined to comment.

According to the lawsuit, which never identifies Cárdenas by name, the accuser says the man fondled her as he drove her to the hospital, touching her vagina and rubbing her breasts after she collapsed while playing golf at the Hillcrest Country Club in 2007.

The young woman said the politician handed her water with “a distinctly different” taste before the two teed off. About four or five hours into a round of golf with him, she "suddenly collapsed to the ground but did not lose consciousness," according to the court filing.

During the ride to the hospital, the man allegedly reached into her shirt, rubbing her breasts, and also reached down her shorts "intermittently throughout the drive."

The alleged incident continued for 30 to 45 minutes during the drive, according to the court filing. At the time of the alleged assault, the victim says she was awake in the car’s passenger seat with her eyes closed and head resting on the window. “Frozen from shock,” she pretended to sleep and did not react to the alleged assault.

Cárdenas denies the allegations, according to a statement released by his lawyer.

“My client is sickened and distraught by these horrific allegations, which are 100%, categorically untrue,” attorney Patricia Glaser of Glaser Weil stated on behalf of Cárdenas. “These claims against the Congressman are absolutely false and are utterly inconsistent with who he is — in the workplace, in the community, and at home.”

Glaser and Cárdenas contend that the complainant is the daughter of a “disgruntled” former employee and “may be the victim of manipulation.”

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who characterized the allegations as “very serious,” said he does not believe Cárdenas should step down from his role as an assistant Democratic whip.

“In the whip team he plays, you know, a role with 25 other people and he’s not a leadership role. He’s a member. I don’t know that he needs to step back from that,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “My position is we have a process in America where you’re innocent until proven guilty.”