Once considered an unlikely champion of ethics, Congressman Joel Hefley will introduce a bill that aims to restore the public's trust in government amid the lobbying scandal sweeping Washington, D.C.
The proposed House Ethics Reform Act of 2006 would strengthen the investigative powers of the House Ethics Committee. Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican, was ousted from the committee last year after admonishing embattled former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Praised by local politicians campaigning to replace the retiring Hefley, the bill comes two months after Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who showered lawmakers he sought to influence with expensive trips and campaign money, pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
"In the wake of recent high-profile scandals, it is essential for the House to consider lobby reform legislation in a timely manner," states a letter that Hefley is sending to colleagues.
Co-sponsored by another former ethics committee member, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., the bill requires representatives to disclose gifts worth more than $20 from lobbyists. Representatives would also have to obtain approval from a House panel before accepting privately funded travel.
Two candidates seeking Hefley's seat in November Republican John Anderson, a former El Paso County sheriff, and Democrat Jay Fawcett, a former Air Force colonel and defense contractor have gone a step further by vowing, if elected, to decline gifts from lobbyists.
Fawcett says the $165,200 salary that a member of Congress earns is plenty for him: "It's a good salary and it's a good position. It's a matter of public trust [not to take gifts from lobbyists]."
"I can't think of any circumstance where I would [accept gifts from lobbyists]," Anderson says.
He adds, however, that he might accept small gifts from foreign dignitaries, fearing that not doing so could be considered an insult.
Jeff Crank, a former lobbyist and Hefley chief of staff, fell short of saying he'd decline gifts from lobbyists or special interests if elected.
However, using the example of a trip to St. Andrews golf course in Scotland a gift Abramoff gave Crank says he would decline a trip abroad that resembles a vacation more than work. He adds that he would probably accept speech and travel funds given by an industry, such as cattle ranching, if the issue appeared relevant.
"I think it has to be common-sense and reasonable," Crank says.
Duncan Bremer, a Republican candidate, attorney and former El Paso county commissioner, supports Hefley's idea of increased disclosure of gifts from lobbyists. But Bremer is wary that the $20 trigger for reporting gifts is too low and could leave some lawmakers mired in paperwork.
"I don't think we should be making it impossible for our congressmen to accept purely nominal gifts," he says.
State Sen. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, did not return calls. Last year, Lamborn accepted $341 in gifts from special interests at the Legislature, including a round of golf and breakfast from Xcel Energy.
Ethics watchdogs once criticized Hefley for being too slow to investigate members of Congress. They now allege that after Hefley took action against DeLay, the former majority leader's backers removed Hefley as ethics chairman in an act of retaliation.
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