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.

"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.

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).

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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