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Probing a Pal

Congressman Joel Hefley gets dragged into an Ethics Committee investigation.

If U.S. Representative Joel Hefley gets the $9 million in federal money he wants, someday Powers Boulevard in Colorado Springs will feed directly into Interstate 25. If you drive north from there, then east on I-80 and keep going for a thousand miles or so, eventually you'll find yourself in Pennsylvania. Go south to Altoona and you're in the territory of another pol, Representative Bud Shuster, who, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has a big say over whether Hefley will get those federal funds for Powers Boulevard.

As transportation chairman, Shuster will also likely play an important role in Hefley's battle to keep commercial flights out of Centennial Airport, a general-aviation facility in his district. Last week Hefley announced he was introducing a bill to close a loophole in FAA regulations that might allow a company called Colorado Connection Executive Air Services to fly daily passenger flights to the Western Slope. Hefley opposes the flights because of constituent protests about increased noise.

But if Shuster has control over Colorado's highways and airports, Hefley has control over Shuster's political future. As a member of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct--aka the Ethics Committee--Hefley has been put in charge of a formal investigation into possible wrongdoing by his colleague. In November the committee issued a terse press release announcing that the low-profile Colorado congressman would head a subcommittee investigating "the matter of Rep. Bud Shuster." The Shuster case is a sticky one. Like many a Washington matter, it has tinges of abuses of power, money and, yes, a personal relationship with a woman that Shuster fiercely defends as strictly a friendship. The investigation is Hefley's first major task on the committee, which he joined in October.

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"It's one of those deals that's a two-edged sword," Hefley says of his assignment to the Ethics Committee, hardly a hotly sought-after post. "On the one hand, you're flattered and honored you're thought to have the judgment and integrity to do this assignment, and on the other hand, I'd never have gone after the assignment. When Newt Gingrich asked me, I tried to talk him out of it."

Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli agrees that it's a tough task. "The general rule of thumb is, no one wants those jobs," says Ciruli. "They're typically very painful, a non-win thing. You're either too tough or too weak."

Ciruli says congressmen appointed to investigate each other "will usually do it fairly." But watchdog groups disagree. They say that the built-in conflicts of interest are just too great for Hefley to do the job of investigating Shuster fairly. In November, Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, wrote directly to Hefley, urging the committee to hire an outside counsel to conduct the investigation: "[Y]ou have been placed in an untenable and unenviable position: the Member you are charged with investigating has substantial power over you, your constituents, and perhaps your own political career."

Ruskin says his concerns aren't specific to Hefley; he'd urge an outside counsel no matter who was in charge because of the inherent conflict of interest any House member would have. "You want the investigative function to be carried out by someone nonpartisan, impartial and not directly a House staffer so they can have a measure of invulnerability," says Ruskin.

Meredith McGehee, a lobbyist for Common Cause, adds, "What you have in this current peer review process is intense partisanship, intense conflict of interest, and it does not serve the integrity of the institution and public integrity."

"The matter of Rep. Bud Shuster" centers on questions of integrity. It involves the intricate web of business and personal ties between Shuster and his former aide Ann Eppard, who worked for the congressman for 22 years until 1994, when she left to start her own lobbying firm. She set up shop in a townhouse in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, and quickly signed up a long list of clients, most of them transportation companies with business before her former boss's committee, many of them donors to his campaigns. Among them were Amtrak, Federal Express, Frito-Lay and the Outdoor Advertisers Association of America, a trade association that represents billboard companies.

Meanwhile, Eppard remains a key staffer on Shuster's re-election campaigns. She also helped raise funds for his son Bob--who ran for Congress in 1996 in Pennsylvania and lost--and even headed up a committee to raise money for an official portrait of the congressman. But the relationship between the congressman and his former aide goes beyond elections and art. Both Roll Call, a Washington newspaper, and the Wall Street Journal have reported that Shuster has been an overnight guest at Eppard's Virginia home. Shuster insists that the two are just friends and has issued a formal statement saying that his whole family often sleeps at Eppard's house and that "Ann Eppard has been our family friend for more than a quarter of a century."

The Ethics Committee investigation follows a formal complaint by the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader. The group asked the committee to explore whether Shuster and Eppard have violated House rules and the law by accepting illegal gifts and intervening with federal agencies on behalf of a campaign donor and Altoona businessman who happens to be a business partner of Shuster's sons.

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