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06.09.11

Anthony Weiner Would Face a Frosty House Ethics Committee

Rapidly running out of goodwill among his Democratic peers as more X-rated details emerge, Rep. Anthony Weiner faces an ethics investigation led by a committee stacked with Southern conservatives and liberal Democrats fighting for women’s rights. Patricia Murphy reports.

If Rep. Anthony Weiner is hoping a get sympathetic hearing from his peers by “welcoming” a House Ethics Committee investigation into his bizarre email escapades with women, he will probably be sorely disappointed with the results—if he hangs on that long.

The panel that would investigate Weiner’s sexually charged online relationships is stacked with Southern, swift-justice Christian conservatives unlikely to relate to a sexting, swearing New Yorker, and liberal Democrats who have dedicated their careers to protecting the rights of women, both in the workplace and online. If Weiner wants to save his hide, he might have more luck in front of an old-fashioned firing squad.

The chairman of the House Ethics Committee this year is Rep. Josiah “Jo” Bonner, an Alabama Republican described by aides who have worked with him in the past as a family man and “Boy Scout.” Driven by a fundamental sense of right and wrong, the former Capitol Hill staffer made headlines during the ethics probe of Rep. Charlie Rangel by saying the New York Democrat Rangel had neither honor nor integrity, and adding, “Mr. Rangel should only look in the mirror if he wants to know who to blame.”

Although Bonner won’t comment on the specifics of the Weiner scandal, he gave an insight Tuesday into what would he will be thinking if an investigation does go forward. “The American people have a very low view of politicians,” Bonner said when asked about Weiner in Spanish Fort, Alabama. “My personal goal is to try to do anything we can and everything we can to assure the American people that this is not the majority of the people that serve in Congress.”

The Ensign case, ethics lawyers said, established a precedent for charges against a member of Congress for creating a hostile work environment for female employees.

Bonner’s Democratic counterpart on the committee is Rep. Linda Sanchez, one half of the first pair of sisters ever to serve in Congress together. Although Sanchez’s liberal California politics are the polar opposite of Bonner’s Christian conservatism, she is no more likely to see Weiner’s online exploits any more favorably.

The Ensign case, ethics lawyers said, established a precedent for charges against a member of Congress for creating a hostile work environment for female employees.

The Berkeley- and UCLA-educated attorney not only spent a summer at the National Organization for Women working on sexual harassment issues, she recently authored a bill to update harassment laws to criminalize cyberbullying and cyberstalking. “The Internet should not be the last refuge of scoundrels,” Sanchez said when she introduced her bill.

The California congresswoman will lead the four other Democrats on the evenly split 10-member panel, including Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Pedro Pierluisi from Puerto Rico, and two more Democratic women. One, Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, co-founded the National Network to End Domestic Violence and worked in the 1990s to pass the Violence Against Women Act before going to Congress. The third woman, Rep. Mazie Hirono, is Hawaii’s former lieutenant governor and deputy attorney general.

Along with the Democrats, the four Republicans joining Bonner include Rep. Michael McCaul, the former Texas deputy attorney general who chaired last year’s subcommittee investigation that ended in Rangel’s censure; Rep. Mike Conway, a CPA and ordained Baptist deacon who once worked as CFO of George W. Bush’s Midland oil company; Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent; and Rep. Gregg Harper, another Baptist deacon and local prosecutor who says on his website that his goal is “to serve the state of Mississippi and our country with honor and integrity.”

Although Weiner continues to insist publicly that he broke no laws or House rules with his X-rated emails, lawyers and staffers familiar with the ethics committee’s jurisdiction said the congressman may have run afoul of several ethics rules, in particular the first rule of the chamber, which says “a member shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

Additionally, with reports surfacing Tuesday that Weiner may have offered to have a staff member help former porn star Ginger Lee with PR advice, an offer that would violate the ban on using public employees in the House for personal gain, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said an ethics committee investigation into Weiner’s conduct is “clearly warranted.”

Finally, the recent Senate Ethics Committee case against former Sen. John Ensign, ethics lawyers contacted by The Daily Beast said, established a precedent for charges against a member of Congress for creating a hostile work environment for female employees, allegations that could apply to Weiner.

An ethics investigation could cost the New York congressman hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he must raise apart from campaign or PAC funds. Rangel spent more than $2 million to defend himself during his two-year investigation and still showed up without a lawyer to the ethics committee trial against him because he said he had run out of money to pay for his defense.

Any goodwill left for Weiner in the Democratic caucus seems to be draining away from the congressman every day that the scandal spins further and further out of control.

After several days of silence, at least seven Democrats in Congress came forward on Wednesday to call for Weiner to resign from office, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), the head of candidate recruitment for House Democrats whose job is made immeasurably more difficult as long as potential candidates have to answer questions about Weiner, their potential colleague.

Also on Wednesday, a new photo surfaced online of a naked man’s genitalia, which two XM radio disc jockeys said was a photograph of Weiner. In a prepared statement, Weiner’s official spokesman did not deny that the picture is of the congressman: “With the full support of his wife, [the congressman] is working on righting these wrongs with his family and his colleagues.”

Among other things Weiner’s new wife, Huma, has to deal with is the news breaking Wednesday that she is now pregnant with their first child, as well as her husband’s continuing insistence that he will not resign his seat or admit breaking any House rules.

A reportedly furious House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was not willing to take Weiner’s word for it this week, after days of his denials to her and other House Democrats that he sent the initial Twitter picture of a man in underwear that ignited the spiraling controversy nearly two weeks ago. Pelosi wrote to the committee on Tuesday asking Bonner and Sanchez to decide whether an investigation into Weiner’s conduct is warranted.

By welcoming the investigation while he knew about all the photos he sent to women, Weiner left it up to the ethics committee to decide whether a congressman emailing naked pictures of himself to young women online reflects credibly on the House. It’s a judgment his other Democratic colleagues already seem to have made on their own.

Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.