Conyers expulsion would be rarity for House Ethics Committee

WASHINGTON — With the House Ethics Committee investigating U.S. Rep. John Conyers on allegations of sexual harassment and misusing taxpayer resources, the longest-serving active member of Congress could potentially face a host of sanctions – including, on a two-thirds vote of the U.S. House, expulsion.

That happens rarely, however — only 20 times in history and only five times in the U.S. House. The last was former Democratic Rep. Jim Traficant of Ohio after he was convicted in federal court of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion charges in 2002. 

As part of the largely confidential, secret Ethics Committee process, investigations usually begin with the chair and ranking member having staff gather information – after which the committee can simply issue a letter of reproval chastising the legislator.

If the committee chooses, the investigation is then over.

That’s also the most common conclusion for Ethics Committee investigations – and even that is rare. In 2015-16, the Ethics Committee issued only two letters of reproval out of 78 investigations. Meanwhile, most investigations remain confidential throughout – though sanctions are typically announced as is the resolution of an investigation if it is publicly known that an investigation is underway.

The current one with Conyers would fit that definition, since the Ethics Committee announced Tuesday it would take a look into the allegations against him.

Under the House rules, the committee can take stronger action against a member than a reproval – recommending a fine, removing his privileges or reprimanding, censuring or even expelling him – but it must go through a longer process that involves creating an investigative subcommittee to take evidence and talk to witnesses and the member. 

Ultimately, if the subcommittee believes there was a violation of House rules, it would lead to the full committee's members – other than those on the subcommittee – holding a public hearing to determine whether there is clear and convincing evidence of a violation. After that, the entire committee would decide on a recommendation of sanctions to send to the full House, with a simple majority needed for lesser punishments and two-thirds needed for expulsion.

The last time anyone went through that entire process was former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., for failing to pay income taxes and misusing his office to solicit fundraising donations.

Rangel was censured on the House floor, a sort of public humiliation that is a step down from expulsion, but still won re-election to two more terms.

Contact Todd Spangler at 703-854-8947 or at tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.

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