WASHINGTON—As the chairman of the House of Representatives ethics committee, Rep. Doc Hastings finds himself at the center of the congressional page scandal and allegations that Republican leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, may have handled the case improperly.
After a rough start, Hastings seems to have found his footing as the chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. But Hastert, R-Ill., picked the Washington state Republican for the post and Hastings has been a longtime supporter of the speaker.
"It's an extremely difficult task for him," Norm Ornstein, a respected political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a policy-research center, said of Hastings' role in the looming investigation. "If he doesn't do it the right way it will destroy him."
A low-key and loyal Republican from a central Washington state district in which he consistently rolls up margins of more than 60 percent, Hastings announced Thursday that his committee had launched an investigation and would issue four dozen subpoenas. He declined to say whether Hastert would be among those subpoenaed.
Hastings said the committee had decided not to hire an outside counsel as it had in its investigations of two previous speakers, Democrat Jim Wright and Republican Newt Gingrich.
"We are going to do what we feel we are charged to do," said Hastings, who'd flown back to the capital from his district this week as the scandal deepened and the pressure grew on Hastert to contain it with the November elections approaching.
The ethics committee usually acts in secret. But Hasting and the other committee members held a news conference to announce their investigation.
Asked whether he personally supported Hastert, Hastings said, "I think the speaker has done an excellent job."
Asked whether he questioned the speaker's leadership, Hastings said, "Listen, I don't want to get into all of that. We are here to talk about what the ethics committee is going to do regarding the incidents in the last week, and that's where we are. That's what we want to focus on."
Hastings was named the chairman of the committee in February 2005 after Hastert declined to reappoint Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. Hastert also removed the two other Republican members of the committee who along with Hefley had voted twice to admonish then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for ethical lapses.
Over the next 16 months, a partisan stalemate stymied any new committee investigations, including new allegations involving DeLay. Hastings and West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan, then the top Democrat on the committee, were at loggerheads over a number of issues, including the makeup of the committee staff.
Earlier this year, Mollohan stepped down from the committee under his own ethics cloud and was replaced by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.
Since then, the committee, which is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats, has launched four investigations, including one involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Berman said Thursday that when he was appointed he made it clear that he didn't want to be part of an "incumbent protection agency," and that he and Hastings had been working well together over the past five and a half months. He said he expected that committee members would set aside their "strong partisan feelings" in conducting the new investigation.
Ornstein, who earlier had been highly critical of Hastings, said the committee had improved since Berman was appointed.
"Hastings started very badly, helping to emasculate the committee," Ornstein said. "I think that has changed. We now have a functioning committee."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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