Mississippi's 2nd District Rep. Bennie Thompson can't manage to stay out of the ethics spotlight. Ironically, the light shining on him this time is because he tried to unscrew the bulb.

Last month, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) quietly introduced H.Res.1416; Thompson is an original co-sponsor. Eighteen other Democrats signed onto the measure the Washington Post said "would essentially neuter the ethics board, making it more difficult for the Office of Congressional Ethics to launch investigations and inform the public of its findings."

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) consists of individuals, not currently serving in Congress, appointed by leaders of both parties to conduct initial investigations and make recommendations to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, aka the Ethics Committee. The OCE has cut its teeth on several high profile cases, including an investigation into the PMA Group's alleged campaign contributions-for-earmarks scandal.

The Fudge measure would prevent the OCE from using its own discretion and self-launching an investigation without sworn, first hand testimony of an accuser. Currently, the OCE could use a document newspaper story as a starting point for an investigation. Fudge and Thompson would require those quoted in the newspaper article to offer sworn testimony and would ban anonymous tips. The measure would prevent the Ethics Committee from publicly commenting on or releasing many OCE reports, keeping once public materials sealed from the eyes of the press and public. It would also create political immunity by prohibiting the Ethics Committee from receiving a referral by the OCE within 60 days of an alleged violator's election.

Under these changes, the public would never have known about the PMA Group scandal, or for that matter, the investigation results from the Caribbean junket of which Thompson, Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Donald Payne (D-NJ), and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich) - all cosponsors of this rule change - were involved. Thompson was cleared of knowingly violating the rules on the Caribbean trip improperly paid for by corporate funds. But Thompson was required to repay the cost of the trip.

Other cosponsors face similar investigations by the OCE: Maxine Waters (D-Cal) on her alleged actions with the Treasury Department on behalf of a bank her husband owns stock in; Laura Richardson (D-Cal) in regards to mortgage related "gifts"; and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill) in matters involving the appointment to fill out Barack Obama's Senate seat.

The Washington Post editorialized "That Ms. Fudge and friends fear their power to launch an investigation says less about the new ethics office than it does about the sponsors of this misguided resolution."

It might be more than just coincidence that Fudge's chief-of-staff played a role in facilitating the free Caribbean trip for congressmen and was admonished by the Ethics Committee.

Perhaps there is a better, more discrete manner to conduct ethics investigations. But Democrats cannot have it both ways. When Democrats took control of the House in 2006 after consistently attacking and capitalizing on ethical failures by Republicans, incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged Democrats would "create the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history." No rule or revision of a rule can make a person honest or ethical, but Democrats did make the ethics process more open. This Thompson cosponsored measure would make it less so.

Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White highlighted that contrast in a press release last week: "This goes to show you that we have yet another broken Pelosi promise on our hands. Rather than spending his time trying to hamstring the ethics process in Congress, I think Mississippians would prefer that Congressman Thompson just keep his nose clean. If he would act ethically, he would not have to advocate more restraints on investigations."

In addition to the Caribbean junket, Thompson has faced an ethical probe concerning allegations by his former staffer that hearings Thompson chaired of the House Homeland Security Committee were used to shake down campaign contributions from lobbyists. Ethics investigators have also looked into whether the same rules violations on the Caribbean trip were also committed at an event in Tunica, Mississippi coordinated by Thompson.

Republicans are not the only ones taking aim at this misguided measure. Organizations like Common Cause, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and Public Citizen have all called on Speaker Pelosi to reject these attempts to weaken the ethics process.

I sympathize with Thompson. It is hard for a politician to recover a reputation when a document is leaked and the full story is not told; or an allegation is made but the resolution comes months or years later. Those are the challenges of elective office and the sacrifices of public service. One can argue it should not be that way; but turning off the lights is not a viable alternative.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.