Probing a Pal

Congressman Joel Hefley gets dragged into an Ethics Committee investigation.

Beyond the Ethics Committee investigation, there are press reports that a federal grand jury in Boston is examining whether Shuster and Eppard used their influence on behalf of two contributors whose property lay in the way of a multi-million-dollar tunnel and road project in Boston known as the "Big Dig." Shuster has denied that he's a target of the grand jury.

Shuster spokesman Scott Brenner says the congressman not only is confident he'll be vindicated in the Ethics Committee investigation but also sees no conflict of interest with Hefley in charge. "We operate under such a microscope," says Brenner. "If there was ever even a hint of one helping out the other one for anything other than what's aboveboard, it would be exposed immediately."

Aboveboard or not, it doesn't take a microscope to see that the ties between Hefley and Shuster are many. It may be a long drive from Colorado Springs to Altoona, but in D.C., Hefley and Shuster occupy offices one floor apart in the same congressional office building. Over the years, Hefley has dealt directly with Shuster and his committee on a number of issues. He has sought the congressman's help concerning Centennial Airport on earlier occasions and supported the Pennsylvania representative when Shuster took up one of Hefley's most cherished goals, the elimination of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

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In 1995, on the House floor, Hefley expressed gratitude to Shuster for sponsoring the bill that terminated the ICC: "I want to thank the gentleman from Pennsylvania...for his tremendous work on this piece of legislation." In 1996, Hefley again showed his thanks to Shuster, this time on his bill dealing with funding and oversight of airports: "I appreciate the gentleman's efforts."

In the latter instance, Hefley wanted--and got--an assurance that there would be no authorization in the bill for a sixth runway at Denver International Airport, which he believes could increase noise pollution. He also thanked Shuster for including a provision that would make it more difficult for Centennial Airport to receive large commercial flights, which he also fears could increase noise levels.

Will Hefley now be afraid to make noise about Shuster's activities? Hefley says he's up to the job of investigating his colleague, though he sees little payoff.

"It's probably a no-win for me and the other members of the subcommittee," says Hefley. "If we find he violated [the rules], then Shuster and his friends will be mad at us. If there's no violation, we'll be accused of a whitewash."

He's firmly on the record against the idea of appointing an outside counsel, despite the urging from watchdog groups. Hefley is consistent on this point: Over the years, he has tended to argue for less machinery for investigation of alleged ethical lapses, not more. If a congressman violates the law, says Hefley, he should be prosecuted by the Justice Department, not investigated by the Ethics Committee.

Last year, Hefley was one of 258 House members who voted to limit public involvement in spurring Ethics Committee investigations. In fact, the new rules Hefley voted for will prohibit future investigations such as the "matter of Rep. Bud Shuster."

Here's how: The Shuster investigation comes in response to the Congressional Accountability Project's formal petition, which the group based on newspaper reports of Shuster's conduct. But the new Ethics Committee rules allow groups or people outside of Congress to bring a complaint only if they have personal knowledge of improper conduct--newspaper reports aren't enough. The Shuster investigation is still alive only because the complaint was filed in September 1996, before the new rules took effect.

"I don't think that it's right," says Hefley, "for just someone out there--in this case, a very liberal-leaning group, but it could be a right-wing group--which reads some criticism in the newspaper and uses that to file a complaint."

Now this opponent of probes is leading one of his own. And he promises as swift an investigation as his subcommittee can muster. He insists that members of his panel can stand up to Shuster. "The truth of the matter," says Hefley, "is that most of the members of the subcommittee voted against Shuster last fall on one of the most important highway bills." That's proof, says Hefley, of their independence.

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