Committee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and ranking Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia formed a four-member investigative subcommittee Tuesday to investigate the 1997 incident. McDermott was ranking Democrat on the ethics committee at the time, and the panel was investigating the conduct of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
McDermott's chief of staff, Jan Shinpoch, said the congressman had been advised of the investigation but had not been asked for any information.
"We'll wait to hear from the committee," Shinpoch said.
The incident began when a Florida couple taped Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who was using his cell phone to discuss the Gingrich case with other Republicans. The tape ended up in McDermott's hands and subsequently was leaked to reporters.
Boehner sued McDermott in federal court. U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan concluded earlier this year that McDermott was responsible for the leak and ordered the Washington lawmaker to pay Boehner for "willful and knowing misconduct" that "rises to the level of malice." Boehner said the payment could total about $600,000, including his legal fees.
Boehner's spokesman said Tuesday he would have no further comment while the matter is pending.
McDermott is challenging the ruling in a federal appeals court.
Responding to a complaint filed by Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, Hefley and Mollohan said the subcommittee would consider whether "McDermott's conduct violated the House Code of Official conduct," which requires members to conduct themselves "at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."
The investigative panel also will consider whether McDermott ran afoul of a government ethics code, and committee rules barring improper disclosures and protecting confidential information.
Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., will head the panel. Other members are Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.; Phil English, R-Pa., and Robert Scott, D-Va. The subcommittee will report its findings to the full ethics panel, officially the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
Meanwhile, a congressional watchdog organization that tracks campaign finance and lobbying issues asked Hefley and Mollohan to investigate House members who received gifts from a lobbyist for Indian tribes, Jack Abramoff.
The group, Democracy 21, cited a Washington Post report last week that Abramoff made available to several lawmakers seats in luxury skyboxes at Washington's football stadium, its basketball arena and the Camden Yards baseball stadium in Baltimore. He also entertained lawmakers at his Washington restaurant, according to the report.
House members and staff are prohibited from receiving gifts of $50 or more, or gifts totaling $100 or more from a single source in a calendar year.
"It is apparent from published reports that lobbyist Abramoff was using his luxury skyboxes and his restaurant, as well as other financial means, in an effort to curry favor and gain influence with House members and staff over government decisions and actions," said the letter from Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer.
Congressional committees already are investigating Abramoff's lobbying activities.