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Republican leadership faces first ethics test

AP

Republican David Rivera speaks to supporters in Coral Gables, Fla. on Election Day 2010.


Republicans criticized Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker for not draining the swamp, as she pledged. They were particularly critical of her handling of the ethics cases involving Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA).

When Republicans took over the House this year, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) committed to a "zero-tolerance policy" on ethics violations.

Now it looks like that policy is getting its first test.

Freshman Rep. David Rivera (R-FL) is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for "alleged financial improprieties" related to his financial relationship with a dog track and a condominium he sold days after winning election to Congress. The Federal Election Commission is also looking into Rivera’s 2010 campaign finances, Politico reported.

Rivera’s office did not immediately respond to e-mail inquiries from NBC News.

Heather Smith, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed a "public integrity investigation" into Rivera, being handled out of the state's Executive Investigations office in Tallahassee. It opened the probe in October of 2010 and is working in conjunction with the Office of the State Attorney and the Miami-Dade Police Department.

“As I understand the allegations against Mr. Rivera, they don't involve any of his congressional service,” newly installed Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference today after being asked about Rivera. “These are activities that took place before he was elected. And I think we are waiting to see how this plays out.”

A Cantor spokesperson said, "Unlike Leader Pelosi and the previous majority, Eric has said that Republicans will have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, and we are currently awaiting the results of the investigation in Florida."

But Boehner and Cantor’s responses -- and their declining to rebuke Rivera -- has drawn criticism from Democrats, looking to paint Republicans as hypocritical and backing off their pledge.

"[I]t's increasingly clear that the campaign pledge from Republican leaders ... didn't really mean 'zero tolerance' for what's now a growing criminal investigation into their own member of Congress," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Now they're going to tolerate it, but tell us, 'It's just this once.'"

A Democratic House aide said, "Speaker Boehner and Leader Cantor should live up to their pledge."

Boehner’s statement also drew comparisons to Pelosi’s statements about Rangel. As speaker, after the ethics committee admonished Rangel last February, Pelosi said, "Every member is entitled to have his day before the ethics committee. They have said he did not knowingly violate the rules. And again, if this were the end of it, that would be one thing, but there's obviously more to come, and we'll see what happens with that."

The difference, however, is, “Those actions [Rivera’s] pre-dated his Congressional service," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told First Read.

That’s true, and the ethics committee’s jurisdiction is only over members while they are members -- though it’s not clear if that also applies to potential campaign-finance violations for freshmen who win election. (The committee did not immediately return a phone call.)

And, in fairness to Boehner, as minority leader, he moved quickly to deal with a sex scandal involving former Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, who resigned.

In addition, Republicans would also point out that sitting Democratic members have had their own ethical issues before coming to Congress. Alcee Hastings, for example, was removed as a federal judge after he was impeached. He later served as chairman of a subcommittee on the House Rules Committee. 

But James Thurber, who teaches ethics at American University, points out that Hastings’ prior ethical issues had an impact on whether he could continue on the intelligence committee and if he could be chairman. Thurber also said those Democratic leaders, who at the time did not condemn the actions of members who had prior ethical issues, are also deserving of criticism.

The House rules back up Boehner, in that the ethics committee does not have jurisdiction over matters that pre-date a member’s service, Thurber said. But, he added, Boehner’s office is “being overly legalistic. ...

"If they’re interested in shining a light on how much more ethical they are, unlike the Democrats, then it sends the wrong message."