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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2003

Ethical cloud over Oxley

U.S. Rep. Michael G. Oxley is doing his level best to bolster the view that Republicans are applying a political hammerlock to Washington that may never be broken.

According to an investigation by the Washington Post, the congressman from Findlay has been leaning on a mutual funds trade group to ditch a lobbyist who happens to be a Democrat and hire a Republican replacement.

Such action, which has become commonplace as the GOP consolidates its control of Congress and the White House, would violate House ethics rules. What might tip it into the criminal realm is a report, verified by six sources, that Oxley aides suggested at a Christmas party in December that a congressional investigation into the mutual funds industry might go easy if the Democratic lobbyist were replaced.

Mr. Oxley is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees that industry and is looking into claims that mutual funds overcharge customers and don't provide enough information to investors.

The charges against Mr. Oxley have a political origin, but they also have the ring of truth, since the 11-term lawmaker is well known in Washington as a captive of special interests, mostly bankers, brokerages, insurance and accounting firms, and other assorted Wall Street denizens.

His premier accomplishment was putting his name on the accounting-reform legislation passed by Congress last year after working tirelessly to water down the bill. Not exactly subtle, but neither is Mr. Oxley's well-deserved reputation as a frequent flier on legislative and special-interest junkets around the world.

Making sure that special-interest lobbying groups employ party loyalists has been an acknowledged cottage industry for the GOP since the mid-1990s. Known as the “K Street Project,” for the D.C. thoroughfare where many lobbyists have their offices, the effort includes a running list of who represents whom and their political affiliation.

Such attempts to extend political influence preternaturally are trademarks of one-party rule in the nation's capital and the hubris that leads those in power to conclude that they can get away with pretty much anything.

And there is ample evidence that they can. Back in 1988, Rep. Tom DeLay, then House majority whip, got a tap on the wrist from the House Ethics Committee for “advising” an electronics industry trade group not to hire a prominent Democrat. He's now the majority leader.

Occasionally, though, a veteran congressman becomes too comfortable in authority and begins to believe that ethics rules exist only for others. Recent history is replete with examples of those who met their political downfall that way.

Newt Gingrich fulfilled his dream to become speaker of the House in 1995, only to be chased out under an ethics cloud in 1998. Mike Oxley, are you listening?



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