Weiner’s Ethics Problem
The Democratic congressman may be in more trouble than he let on.


Andrew Stiles

Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D., N.Y.) tearful confession at a press conference Monday raised as many questions as it answered, particularly regarding whether any of his actions were violation of congressional ethics rules, or worse, federal law. Almost immediately after Weiner’s press conference had concluded, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement calling for an Ethics Committee investigation to determine if “any official resources were used or any other violation of House rules occurred.”

Weiner has promised to fully cooperate with the investigation, but denies any official wrongdoing beyond poor judgment. “I didn’t violate the Constitution,” he said at the press conference. “Did I violate my oath? I don’t think so. But people are entitled to their viewpoint.”

New information about the extent of Weiner’s mischief indicates that the Democratic congressman may be in a lot more trouble than he let on. TMZ reported on Tuesday, for example, that Weiner instructed Ginger Lee, a former porn star who exchanged a number of explicit messages with the congressman, to lie to the press about the extent of their relationship as the scandal unfolded — and even offered her PR advice from “someone on my team,” sending her a pre-written statement to give to the media.

According to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), if a staff member on the congressional payroll — Weiner’s press secretary, for example — did in fact provide this help, it would be a violation not only of congressional ethics rules but also of federal law, both of which clearly state, “Employees of the House are paid from funds of the United States Treasury to perform public duties,” which “do not include performing nonofficial, personal, or campaign duties.” Asking a congressional employee to help cover up a bawdy online relationship with a former porn star would not qualify as a “public duty.”

Until the information about Ms. Lee came to light, CREW did not believe an investigation was necessary — even though Meagan Broussard, one of the women Weiner had cavorted with online, revealed to that the congressman had called her from his office telephone. Ethics rules allow for the “occasional personal use of House phones and computers.”

Oddly enough, however, if Weiner had used campaign funds (as opposed to taxpayer funds) to pay someone to provide assistance to Ms. Lee, that would be entirely permissible. The relevant (and extremely convoluted) rules and laws allow for some slight overlap when it comes to personal versus official use; only if a truly inordinate sum was paid could it constitute a violation.

Another potential problem for Weiner is Rule XXIII, Clause 1, of the House Code of Official Conduct, which states that “a member . . . officer or employee of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.” But while it’s hard to dispute that Weiner’s action are in blatant violation here, an aide familiar with the process says that members are rarely, if ever, investigated solely for breaking this rule. Otherwise, the aide says, “They’d all be under investigation.” Instead, the rule is often employed as a catch-all provision in conjunction with allegations of other, more serious violations.

Whatever the case may be, it’s unlikely to be resolved any time soon, as the Ethics Committee process can be exceedingly slow and deliberative. The most recent high-profile case decided by the committee — Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) was found to have violated House rules against financial impropriety — took more than two years to reach its conclusion. Even after that decision, followed by an overwhelming censure vote by the full House, Rangel ended up winning reelection

Weiner might not be so lucky. He told reporters it would be “up to my constituents to decide” whether he is fit to remain in office. According to a recent SurveyUSA poll, 46 percent of New Yorkers — including 42 percent of Democrats — think Weiner should resign, compared with 41 percent who want him to stay in office. Individuals of all political stripes, from reliable liberal champion Ed Schultz to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), are already calling for his resignation.

House Democrats are said to be none too pleased that Weiner’s antics have sucked the wind from the sails of their full-frontal assault on the GOP budget. In a sense, he lucked out that the House is in recess this week. When members return next Monday, Weiner’s colleagues will be prodded to weigh in, and by then the mountain of evidence could be even more damning than it is now. If enough Democrats urge him to step down, Weiner would be hard pressed to stick around.

Most Republicans, meanwhile, are looking on in quiet amusement. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), for instance, has avoided public comment thus far. One House GOP aide cites the entirely different scenarios of Weiner and Rep. Chris Lee (R., N.Y.), who resigned immediately after sending a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist, and wonders how Democrats allowed the scandal to progress as far as it did. “Of course there’s an element of schadenfreude,” the aide says. “But it’s mostly just us shaking our heads going ‘What are they thinking?’”

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.