WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2006 -- The House Ethics Committee's decision to launch an investigation into former Rep. Mark Foley's alleged electronic messages to pages marks a sharp change for a committee that had all but stopped functioning for much of the year.
It's also a sign of how seriously members are taking this scandal.
Members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct flew back to Washington to meet -- and then held a rare press conference to announce they had formed an investigative subcommittee to look into the Foley matter.
While they no longer have actual jurisdiction over Foley himself, since he has resigned, the investigation could include the actions of other House members, officers and staff. The new subcommittee, they added, has already unanimously agreed on nearly four dozen subpoenas.
While acknowledging that it's a "busy time" for lawmakers -- with midterm elections just one month away -- Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the committee, said the subcommittee would have "no higher priority" in days ahead, adding that the investigators "will go wherever the evidence leads us."
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat, characterized the time frame for the investigation by saying, "We are looking at weeks, not months."
It's a rare display of focus and urgency, given the committee's recent history. For 16 months, the House Ethics Committee was stymied by partisan gridlock and infighting, launching no new investigations until this past May, when it announced investigations into the scandals surrounding retiring Rep. Bob Ney, Rep. William Jefferson and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Still, critics say the ethics committee has had such a poor track record that they doubt the investigation will be tough enough -- particularly when it comes to looking into the actions of the Republican leadership.
Many were calling for the committee to appoint an outside counsel to investigate, as was the case with the investigations into former speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich. Watchdog groups today decried the decision to keep the investigation in-house.
"The refusal of the House Ethics Committee to retain an outside counsel to investigate the Foley scandal and how it was handled by House Republican leaders gravely undermines the public credibility of the House investigation and calls into serious question whether we will ever get to the bottom of what happened here," Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said in a statement.
Members of the committee defended their decision -- and their impartiality. But it may be hard for them to overcome charges of partisanship or incumbent protection.
Chairman Hastings, in the press conference, said at one point that he thought House Speaker Dennis Hastert had done an "excellent job," though he later said those comments were not in reference to the matter at hand. He declined to say whether Hastert had been issued a subpoena.
And one of the other lawmakers appointed to the four-member subcommittee, Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., is a known Hastert ally -- her district is adjacent to his, as she acknowledged. But, she said, "All of us on this committee were chosen because we are thought to be fair."
Still, Democrats seem largely pleased by the committee's move. They were not pressing for an outside counsel -- instead, they've been pressing for speed, hoping that the investigation might be concluded before the midterm elections.
They also want Republican leaders to testify under oath.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California released a statement saying she was "pleased" with the ethics committee's actions.
"I expect that the Republican members, officers of the House, and staff will be questioned under oath so that this scandal will be resolved fairly and quickly," she said. "I look forward to the preliminary report next week."
The resolution Pelosi introduced on the House floor last Friday had called for a preliminary report within 10 days, although that resolution technically did not pass, but was instead referred to the committee.