Q. I am a House staffer with a question about the House Ethics investigation of Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla. I know Radel pled guilty to a drug charge last year, but I’m pretty sure that the charge was just a misdemeanor. Also, I know that the House Ethics Committee automatically investigates any Member who commits a crime, but I thought that applied just to felonies, not misdemeanors. If that’s right, why is the Ethics Committee investigating Radel?
A. This is a good question because it illuminates some of the different ways in which an investigation by the House Ethics Committee can begin, whether by House resolution, the committee’s own initiative, or even by the filing of a complaint by another member.
Let’s start with some factual background. On Nov. 20, Radel pleaded guilty in District of Columbia Superior Court to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cocaine. According to court documents filed with his plea, Radel admitted to using cocaine several times and was caught attempting to purchase it from an undercover agent in Washington, D.C., in late October.
Under House rules, the charges against Radel meant that within 30 days, the House Ethics Committee was required to do one of two things. It either had to start an investigation or submit a report to the House explaining why it had decided against an investigation. These requirements were first imposed on the committee by H Res 451, which the House adopted in June 2007, the day after then-Rep. William Jefferson was indicted on 16 criminal charges in federal court related to alleged bribery. The requirements apply whenever a member is indicted or otherwise formally charged with criminal conduct in a federal or state court, regardless of the level of charge.
In several instances since the resolution was adopted, members have been charged with crimes that the committee concluded did not warrant an investigation. For example, in October last year, several members were arrested and charged with blocking passage after participating in a protest outside the Capitol. Less than 30 days later, the House Ethics Committee issued a report to the House stating that an investigation was not necessary based on the “scope and nature” of the members’ conduct. The report noted that the charges against the members were dropped after forfeiture of a $50 collateral payment.
In Radel’s case, the day after his guilty plea, before the Ethics Committee took any action, an advocacy group filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics. This is another avenue that can lead to an investigation by the committee. The House created the OCE in 2008 to screen allegations of misconduct by members. Historically, only other members could file complaints with the Ethics Committee, but the OCE was created in part to provide the general public with a vehicle to initiate allegations of unethical conduct by members and staffers. The OCE has no authority to impose sanctions but instead reviews allegations and determines which warrant further review by the Ethics Committee.
On Dec. 16, the Ethics Committee announced that it was commencing an investigation of Radel to determine whether he “violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct in the performance of his duties or the discharge of his responsibilities, with respect to conduct forming the basis for criminal charges of possession of cocaine in the District of Columbia, to which Representative Radel pled guilty on November 20, 2013.” Thus, the OCE’s review was no longer needed.
Incidentally, even in the absence of H Res 451, the Ethics Committee still could have begun an investigation. House rules allow the Ethics Committee to exercise its investigative authority “on its own initiative.” To do so, the committee “may consider any information in its possession indicating that a Member, officer, or employee may have committed a violation of the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct applicable to the conduct of such Member, officer, or employee in the performance of the duties or the discharge of the responsibilities of such individual.”
On the other hand, if the charge against Radel had been a felony — as opposed to a misdemeanor — you are correct that the rules would have required the committee to investigate, regardless of its desire to do so. In short, House rules require an Ethics investigation after a member is convicted and sentenced for a felony but leave it to the committee’s discretion as to whether to investigate members’ other involvement with the criminal justice system. Here, the Ethics Committee decided Radel’s circumstances warranted probing.