WASHINGTON -- Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia has stepped down temporarily from his post as ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, amid accusations that he used his congressional position to funnel money to his own home-state foundations, possibly enriching himself in the process.
As recently as Thursday, Mollohan, a 12-term lawmaker, said he would not step aside, but he bowed to pressure yesterday from House Democratic leaders eager to pursue their campaign against what they call a ''culture of corruption" in the Republican Party.
''It has become clear that the unprecedented campaign that has been launched against me will continue to be at least as relentless as it has been to date," he said in a letter to the House minority leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, maintaining his innocence. ''I do not want these baseless allegations to divert attention from the important work that the House Ethics Committee must undertake in the remainder of this Congress."
In a 500-page complaint filed with the US attorney in February, the conservative National Legal and Policy Center challenged the accuracy of Mollohan's financial disclosure forms and detailed a remarkable change in personal fortune for the lawmaker.
Mollohan's real estate holdings and other assets jumped in value from $562,000 in 2000 to at least $6.3 million in 2004, said Ken Boehm, chairman of the legal center.
During the same period, Mollohan used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to secure more than $150 million in appropriations for five nonprofit entities that he helped establish in his congressional district. One of the groups is headed by a former appropriations aide, Laura Kurtz Kuhns, with whom Mollohan bought $2 million worth of property on Bald Head Island, N.C.
The congressman has maintained the surge in his personal worth came from an inheritance, some smart investments, and a sharp run-up in real estate values.
Pelosi joined Mollohan in asserting that the accusations against Mollohan stem from a partisan effort to deflect attention from the Republicans' ethical issues, including a criminal indictment in Texas against the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, former GOP Representative Randy ''Duke" Cunningham's guilty plea to bribery charges, and the guilty pleas of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and two former DeLay leadership aides.
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Even some Democratic leadership aides said Mollohan has not fully answered questions surrounding the appropriations he obtained, which funded generous salaries for his associates and former aides. One of them, the Institute for Scientific Research, paid its three top executives a total of $777,000 in 2004. Employees of those nonprofits and associated contractors, in turn, contributed generously to Mollohan's campaign committees and a Mollohan family foundation.
''Frankly, I am shocked it took Mr. Mollohan this long to come to the conclusion that he could not serve as the senior Democrat on the Ethics Committee while under federal investigation over his financial dealings," said Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Boehm said he was unimpressed by Mollohan's gesture. What he wanted to see is a revision of at least 262 financial disclosure forms that his group says are demonstrably false. As for committee assignments, Boehm said, ''If I had a choice, I would say resign from the Appropriations Committee. That's where the real stuff happens."
The Ethics Committee, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has its own problems. The panel has been dysfunctional since House leaders moved in early 2004 to replace its aggressive chairman, Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado, with Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington, a closer ally of the party leadership, then attempted to change committee rules to block investigations driven by Democrats.
Republicans have long charged that Mollohan, at the behest of Pelosi, has thwarted all efforts to reach a compromise on new rules that would get the committee functioning again.