A felon serve in Congress? Michael Grimm will test House

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — After pleading guilty to a judge Tuesday on a felony tax evasion charge, New York Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican, pledged to reporters he would also stay in Congress.

Grimm pled guilty in court to one count of tax evasion and was set to submit to a “statement of facts” that admits to all the conduct alleged in the 20-count federal indictment.

A statement from federal prosecutors in New York released on Tuesday after Grimm’s court appearance noted that in addition to the tax evasion plea, Grimm also publicly admitted to hiring undocumented workers, lying under oath while serving in Congress, obstructing federal and state officials, and cheating employees out of employment insurance claims.

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Venizelos stated, “The public expects their elected officials at all levels of government to behave honorably, or at a minimum, lawfully. As his guilty plea demonstrates, Grimm put self-interest above public service.”

Grimm apologized for his actions and took responsibility, but said the unpaid taxes from a New York restaurant he once owned were all a big mistake.

“As long as I’m able to serve I’m going to serve,” Grimm said. Reelected in November, he was is set to be sworn in to a new term in January.

Prosecutors asked a judge to sentence Grimm on June 8th to 24 to 36 months of jail time. His defense team suggested 12 – 18 months.

Can a Congressman serve from behind bars? If recent history is any guide it’s unlikely that Grimm will serve out his third term that starts in January even though there is nothing in the Constitution or House Rules against felons serving in Congress.

There isn’t much historical precedent for it either, although one Congressman in the 1990s, Republican Jay Kim, shuffled around Capitol Hill wearing an ankle bracelet after he was convicted of 10 misdemeanors.

Grimm’s felony plea is a more serious matter.

While Grimm said Tuesday he has talked to House leadership about his situation, he has not yet spoken with House Speaker John Boehner and Boehner has not publicly weighed in on whether Grimm should step down. But Boehner has made it clear during his time in leadership that he has little patience for those members admitting to any wrongdoing.

“We won’t have any announcements until the Speaker discusses the matter with Mr. Grimm,” said Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel.

Calls for Grimm to resign are sure to mount and GOP leaders would prefer not to deal with questions about a felon remaining in the Republican conference when they open up the new session in 2015.

In previous cases where House Republicans admitted to ethical lapses — criminal or personal — Boehner has worked privately to encourage scandal plagued members to step aside on their own.

Former Florida GOP Rep. Trey Radel, who pled guilty to cocaine possession last year, initially sought treatment for drug addiction, but resigned two months later. When half naked pictures surfaced online of Rep. Chris Lee of New York soliciting an encounter with a woman on Craigslist he quickly stepped down. Indiana Republican Mark Souder resigned his seat one day after admitting he had an affair with an aide.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Tuesday on Boehner “to insist that Congressman Grimm resign immediately.”

Democrats were frustrated they were unable to defeat Grimm in November’s midterm election, even with the 20-count federal indictment hanging over him. He also grabbed national headlines last January for threatening to toss a reporter over a balcony on Capitol Hill after being asked about the allegations.

If Grimm does eventually decide to resign, Democrats have a good chance to pick up that seat in a special election. A spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm is already accusing Boehner of covering up for Grimm.

“After Speaker Boehner abetted Grimm’s lies to voters about his guilt in this past election, he owes it to the constituents and the Congress to make sure Michael Grimm doesn’t serve in this next Congress,” Josh Scherwin, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But a senior House Republican leadership aide points out that Pelosi has not forced out those Democrats who faced ethics investigations.

“After standing behind Reps. Bill Jefferson, Charlie Rangel, Jack Murtha, and many others, Rep. Pelosi has zero credibility of these issues,” the aide told CNN.

Jefferson’s trial drug out on Capitol Hill and for a time pitted House leaders from both parties against the Justice Department, which wanted to raid his office after they found $100,000 found in his home freezer. It took some time before Pelosi and Democrats stripped Jefferson of his powerful post on the tax writing committee. He ultimately lost a bid for reelection and is serving a 13-year sentence for bribery. While Murtha and Rangel faced ethics inquiries, neither was indicted for criminal wrongdoing. Rangel was censured by his colleagues in the House for ethics violations, including failing to pay taxes, but continues to serve in Congress. Murtha, who was a top Pelosi soldier, died in 2010 while still in office.

If Grimm wants to remain in Congress he’ll likely face some type of punishment handed down from the House Ethics Committee, a process that could drag out for months.

The panel deferred its review at the request of the Department of Justice, and under its rules will have to vote to renew its investigation when the next session begins in January.

The committee declined to comment to CNN on the Grimm case.

Grimm has already given up his seat on the House Financial Services Committee, but depending on his sentence he could be forced under House ethics rules to also refrain from voting on the House floor.

If the Ethics committee votes that Rep Grimm’s actions broke House rules he could face punishments ranging from reprimand – the mildest public condemnation -to censure or expulsion. The last time the House voted to expel a member was in 2002, after Democratic Rep Jim Traficant was convicted of bribery and tax evasion charges.

The House has only expelled five members in its entire history. Three of those were during the Civil War era for disloyalty. Another, Rep. Michael (Ozzy) Myers of Pennsylvania was expelled in 1980 after a bribery conviction.

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