01.04.11

The GOP's Charlie Rangel

Republicans take back the House Wednesday, pledging a hard line on ethics. Their first scandal: Rep.-elect David Rivera, reportedly under investigation for corruption.

UPDATE: Rivera told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that GOP leaders have not talked to him about the issue. "I am completely focused on doing my job as Congressman," he said. "Nobody—or any newspaper—is going to deter me from fulfilling the mandate the voters sent me to fulfill.” And Majority Leader Eric Cantor, when asked what he thought of the case, told The Daily Beast: Really, I don't know anything about that," he said. "All I know is what I read."

This Wednesday, David Rivera will raise his right hand at the nation's Capitol to be sworn in as a proud member of Congress. He might soon strike the same pose again for a different oath back home in less happy circumstances.

Rivera, who was elected in November to represent Florida's 25th District, is reportedly the subject of a state investigation of his finances over questions surrounding more than $500,000 in payments from a dog track to a consulting firm run by his godmother. His office has told reporters that he helped with the firm's campaign to pass a referendum benefiting the track, but took none of their money.

Rivera's troubles present an early challenge for the new House Republican leadership—which has pledged zero-tolerance for ethics problems. The GOP bashed Democrats over Rep. Charlie Rangel's case—-charges of unpaid taxes, misleading financial statements, and other transgressions that landed Rangel a rare censure from his colleagues late last year. The Republicans' emphasis on the issue sets them up for charges of hypocrisy if they fail to deal swiftly and decisively with any similar transgressions on their side of the aisle.

The Democrats are ready to pounce. "The last thing Washington needs is an ethically challenged, scandal-plagued politician like David Rivera who is under investigation before even being sworn into his office," DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in a statement after word of Rivera's problems broke.

The incoming leadership team is aware of the need for clean hands—and the GOP's own past record of ethical scrapes. Republicans "learned our lessons" from earlier mistakes, Rep. Eric Cantor, the incoming majority leader, told National Review online in August.

"We understand the reasons for us being fired in '06 and '08," Cantor said, referring to such matters as Mark Foley's sexually charged IMs to underage pages, and Tom DeLay's indictment for money laundering, which helped pave the way for a Democratic takeover of the House in 2006.

Republicans have “certainly taken ethics as a priority,” said Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation. “But the Congress hasn’t been formed, so we’re going to wait and see whether it’s sincere or not.”

"Some of that had to do with ethics violations and we had several members under public investigation during the time of the '06 elections. I think we've learned that's not a good way to gain the confidence of the people and that we ought to be instituting a zero-tolerance policy," Cantor said.

A spokesman for Cantor declined to comment on Rivera's case, but said the congressman stood by his statement. So far, so good: Republicans scored big points with watchdog groups this week after they announced they would keep the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent nonpartisan panel put in place by Democrats in 2008 to investigate allegations against lawmakers. Republican leaders opposed its creation, but the agency's top opponents in recent months were Democrats upset by investigations into their colleagues. Supporters of the OCE feared that the GOP would eliminate the office once they took over, but its record earned the office key support from prominent conservative organizations like Taxpayers for Common Sense and Judicial Watch, which joined with ethics watchdogs last month to successfully demand its preservation. Chris Littleton, president of the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of Tea Party groups and a participant in the push, told The Daily Beast that while ethics was only a small part of his groups' larger crusade against systemic problems in Washington, Rivera's case demonstrated why the OCE was still needed.

"Anyone like this must be watched," he said. "I think we must all consider what kind of people these offices attract, and more importantly what kind of character it takes to become 'successful' in office."

Paul Blumenthal, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government, said that Republican leaders have been sensitive about their old reputation, noting that they quickly turned on Rep. Mark Souder, who resigned after it was revealed he had an affair with an aide.

"They've certainly taken ethics as a priority," he said. "But the Congress hasn't been formed, so we're going to wait and see whether it's sincere or not."

In the case of Rivera, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, there may not be much for Republicans to do other than deliver full-throated condemnations if the investigation grows more serious.

According to the Miami Herald, which broke the news, Rivera was serving as a Florida state representative when he was contracted to run a campaign on behalf of Flagler Dog Track to pass a referendum allowing them to install slot machines. After previously denying on the campaign trail that he managed the gambling interest's publicity, Rivera turned up in the track's contract with Millennium as "Top Leader of Chain of Command of All Campaign Consultants and Campaign Activities." An attorney for the company told the paper Rivera approached them about taking the job but directed them to send their money to Milliennium Consulting instead, operated by his godmother, and investigators are looking into whether the dealings were improper and whether any of the cash made it into Rivera's own hands. There was more fishy business as well—Rivera's sole listed employer on financial disclosure forms, USAID, told reporters that it had never heard of him and he has yet to detail who was writing his paychecks instead. On Monday he admitted to the AP that he received $137,000 in loans from his godmother's firm, but that he had since repaid the money and amended his financial-disclosure forms to include the income—albeit after the election.

Typically veteran members are punished for improprieties with the loss of committee chairmanships, as was the case with Rangel. Rivera will already be a back-bencher, so he doesn't have prestigious titles to lose. According to Washington attorney Stan Brand, improprieties committed before entering Congress are unlikely to fall under the House Ethics Committee's jurisdiction.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, may have ethical worries of their own. Nevada's John Ensign recently survived investigations by the FBI and FEC into an admitted affair with a staffer's wife, who received $96,000 from Ensign's parents after he ended the relationship. But the Senate Ethics Committee is still looking into the matter. David Vitter, who was linked to a prostitution ring, won reelection in Louisiana and will remain in office as a reminder of past scandal. While he was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee, the watchdog group CREW is calling on the panel to open a new investigation—to determine whether Vitter used government funds to ferry a staffer to court dates for assault charges against an ex-girlfriend ( Vitter's office has denied the claim). The GOP may have dodged the bullet on one other matter. Tea Party icon and former Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell is under investigation for misusing campaign funds. She has denied any misconduct.

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.