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Step aside, Mollohan

Questions persist about House ethics panel's senior Democrat

The Washington Post

For the good of the House, for the good of his party and in the interest &

8212; however remote the possibility at this point &

8212; of resolving the paralysis of the House ethics committee, the panel's ranking Democrat, West Virginia Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, should step aside while legitimate questions about his own conduct are resolved.

As detailed in recent news reports, Mollohan used his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to get earmarks directing $250 million in federal funds to five West Virginia nonprofits he helped set up. These groups paid generous salaries to Mollohan associates and former aides; one of them, the Institute for Scientific Research, paid its three top executives a total of $777,000 in 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal. Employees of the nonprofits and associated contractors also contributed generously to Mollohan's campaign committees and a Mollohan family foundation; the New York Times reported that senior employees, board members and contractors donated almost $400,000 to Mollohan's political committees over the past decade.

As he was steering federal money to the nonprofits, Mollohan also invested with a former appropriations staffer &

8212; Laura Kuhns, who runs one of the groups (2004 salary: $102,000) and sits on the board of two others &

8212; in resort properties on Bald Head Island, N.C., valued at $2 million. Mollohan acknowledges that he initially failed to pay 2004 taxes on income from rental properties in Washington and North Carolina; his accountant told the Wall Street Journal that the value of the Mollohan's half-interest in 27 Washington condominiums "may not have been properly reported in the early years" on his financial disclosure forms, though Mollohan now says they were.

All of these entanglements raise enough ethical issues to justify an inquiry; in fact, this would be just the kind of thing that a functioning ethics committee &

8212; that is, an entity that hasn't existed throughout the 109th Congress &

8212; ought to tackle. Perhaps there's nothing more going on here than West Virginia coziness, but this is an awful lot of smoke to have swirling around the ethics panel's ranking Democrat. "The way this has been spun out it has allowed people to put perfectly honest things in very close proximity, side by side, and ask people, please draw a sinister conclusion here," Mollohan told us. Yes, but isn't that what the need to avoid the appearance of impropriety &

8212; the kind of thing the ethics committee regularly warns members to avoid &

8212; is all about?

Mollohan describes himself as the victim of an "entirely partisan, political" attack by a "politically motivated, ultra-conservative organization," the National Legal and Policy Center. We have little doubt that hardball, partisan politics are behind the charges against Mollohan, who has embarrassed Republicans with his refusal to accede to the GOP leadership's efforts to neuter the ethics panel by stacking its membership, weakening its rules and politicizing its staff. And the pious assertions from this very leadership that Mollohan should step aside are especially hard to take coming from a crew that tried to rewrite its rules to let Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) stay in power after he was indicted.

Nonetheless, this needs to be sorted out, and Mollohan should step down while that happens. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., who's so far responded by denouncing efforts to "cast aspersions on the independent and distinguished ranking member," should move to replace Mollohan temporarily with another Democrat similarly committed to restoring the credibility of the ethics committee.