Reflections of a Public Witness

By , Matthew Cossolotto worked for former Speaker Jim Wright for four-and-one-half years. He is now a speechwriter in the private sector.

IN his inaugural speech, Speaker Tom Foley promised the scandal-weary House and nation a package of ethics reforms by the end of this year. A special bipartisan House task force, established under former House Speaker Jim Wright and headed by California Democrat Vic Fazio and Illinois Republican Lynn Martin, is expected to recommend such a package soon. The task force has solicited testimony from various parties, including former House Speaker Wright's defense attorney, William Oldaker, who recommended ways to strengthen the rights of members accused of ethics violations. But so far as I know the task force has not heard from anyone who can offer a perspective on what it's like to be a witness in an ethics inquiry, especially a staffer to the member under scrutiny.

This is a glaring oversight. In virtually every inquiry the ethics committee must rely on the testimony of interested parties - very often the accused member's current or former staffers. And these people are extremely vulnerable to pressures and inducements.

Because staffers serve at the pleasure of their bosses and because decisions regarding promotions and pay rest with the member, staffers can be punished or rewarded depending on how they testify. Being a witness in an ethics case involving their boss puts congressional staffers in an extremely awkward position. As Speaker Wright's former aide who helped to compile and edit his book, ``Reflections of a Public Man,'' I was called as a witness in the inquiry. I learned firsthand about the dilemma such witnesses face: either play it safe and close ranks with the ``defense team'' or risk incurring the wrath of the accused member and his top aides.

Recommended: Newt Gingrich ethics investigation: 4 facts you haven't heard from him

The ethics task force must deal with the unpleasant possibility that the pulling and tugging of conflicting loyalties and pressures make truthful testimony from staff witnesses more the exception than the rule. You know the ethics process is in trouble if witnesses are tempted to conclude that the benefits of lying to Congress outweigh the risks of telling the truth.

And given the absence of any effective ``whistleblower'' protection on Capitol Hill, there is no incentive for a staff witness to risk making an enemy of the member for whom he or she works or worked. This truth is magnified considerably if your boss happens to be House Speaker.

This matter raises issues that strike at the heart of the integrity of any ethics inquiry, and therefore must not be swept under the rug. Some on Capitol Hill may take offense that this matter is being raised at all. I believe ``witness rights'' should be fully explored by the task force and debated as part of the ethics reform package.

Here are seven suggestions designed to provide a springboard for debate and consideration.

First, the House should get serious about educating all members and staff about standards of conduct. There should be mandatory ethics orientation programs.

Second, the House should declare that it demands the truth from employees who become ethics witnesses. To enforce this ``Truth in Testimony'' rule, the House should punish those who knowingly lie to Congress. We must stop the de facto endorsement of perjury that occurs when no action is taken against liars.

As a corollary, the use of threats and/or vilification to impede others from telling the truth or to discredit their testimony when they do must be strictly forbidden.

Third, the House should outlaw the spectacle of a defendant's attorney representing multiple witnesses. (I understand that William Oldaker represented at least six key witnesses in the Wright case.) Even if outright perjury is avoided, such a practice gives the appearance of orchestration and possible obstruction of justice.

Fourth, House rules should discourage witnesses from discussing their testimony before testifying, which gives the appearance of conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Fifth, the House should create an independent, non-partisan Office of the Ethics Ombudsman to answer questions and receive complaints - on an anonymous basis if need be - from staff and members regarding ethics matters.

Sixth, the House should establish an independent Office of Special Investigator to replace the House ethics committee. Such an office would enhance witness confidence in the ethics process.

Lastly, the House should continually remind staff and members that they owe an obligation under House Rules to the House as an institution and to the public. Under the present system, members and staff alike are tempted to adopt the credo of mindless cannibals: that we are a nation of men and not of laws, and that the end justifies the means.

Because I believed it was my duty to provide honest testimony under oath, for most of this past year I was faced with the possibility that my career would be damaged by the enmity emanating from the Speaker's office.

It shouldn't be that way. Witnesses should not be forced into the role of defendants. To restore public trust and confidence in the ethics process and Congress itself, the House should act now on this key aspect of ethics reform.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...