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Stark, Raving, Maryland

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Before she became House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi promised that if Democrats won control of the House, she would "drain the swamp" in Washington. How is she doing?

Last week, the House ethics committee scolded House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel for corporate-sponsored travel to the Caribbean. In that the panel had yet to resolve multiple charges involving Rangel's personal finances, rank-and-file Democrats joined GOP calls for his ouster as Ways and Means chairman, while Pelosi remained publicly silent. Wednesday, Rangel temporarily stepped aside as chairman.

Now for the funny part: Next in line to chair the tax-writing committee is Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, Calif. Or should I say, D-Maryland?

You see, Stark has his own ethics baggage -- and his mud may well stick to Pelosi. You may have read that the bipartisan House ethics committee cleared Stark in January after it conducted a probe into charges that Stark wrongly claimed a homestead tax exemption for his home in Maryland, where he is not registered to vote. (If he were registered in Maryland, he couldn't represent his California district.) As the committee wrote in a November report, Stark "did not receive a tax credit as a result of filing an application for the credit" and "he did not file a false application for the Maryland tax credit."

That's what the Pelosi Inc./GOP Inc. ethics committee found. But the independent bipartisan Office of Congressional Ethics -- established, Pelosi bragged, to demonstrate "a new element of transparency and accountability to the ethics process" -- may have shined too much light on the House ethics machine.

The OCE reported that it found "substantial reason to believe" that Stark misrepresented himself by filing a form in which he said he was registered to vote in Maryland. And after a news report about another congressman losing his primary-residence exemption, Stark called Maryland assessors and asked that the form be corrected -- which he denied doing during an interview with OCE staff in his office.

The report also noted that Stark "was extremely belligerent and frequently insulted" OCE staff, who soon realized he was videotaping them.

Oddly, the House ethics report that cleared Stark also backed up the OCE findings, in that the panel recognized that Stark did say he was registered to vote in Maryland -- although it called it an "inadvertent mistake regarding his voter registration, which was soon corrected."

Oh, and according to the House panel, Stark maintained that he may be "eligible" for the primary residence credit "because his Maryland home is the only home he owns."

In January, KTVU's Randy Shandobil interviewed residents living near the San Lorenzo, Calif. house that Stark claims as his residence. Folks who lived across the street, next door and down the street were shocked to learn a congressman said he lived in their neighborhood. Which tells you: Fremont is the post-office box; Maryland is home, sweet home.

The standard descriptive phrase for Stark, used most recently in the Washington Post, is: "has a history of erratic behavior." That's the polite term for: gaffe machine.

So out with Rangel and in with Stark, Pelosi's next ethics nightmare. The independent transparent ethics committee questioned Stark's truthfulness, but the Pelosi-GOP Inc. ethics panel gave him a pass.

The swamp is in session.

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