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The House ethics committee is likely to exonerate five members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were accused of taking an improper trip to the Caribbean, according to sources familiar with the case.
The committee may also renew its complaint that the Office of Congressional Ethics is mishandling investigations.
Sources familiar with the investigation say the ethics committee formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has raised concerns that OCE misinterpreted the responsibility of Members of Congress in accepting free travel from nonprofit groups, failed to provide the accused Members with evidence that would have been helpful in their defense and missed its own dead- lines for processing the complaint.
The objections are similar to those that the ethics committee raised in dismissing a case last week against Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and would indicate a deep rift between the two bodies tasked with overseeing Congressional ethics. OCE leadership disputed Standards criticism of its handling of the Graves case, saying the panel mischaracterized the OCEs work.
As in the Graves matter, sources suggested that Standards will release the investigative report assembled by the OCE which suggests possible improper conduct by the Members surrounded by a critique explaining why the ethics committee disagrees with the OCEs conclusions and procedures.
Members who are under investigation have apparently already received copies of their files from Standards.
The ethics committee in June announced that it was creating an investigative subcommittee to look into five Members who accepted free travel to an annual event sponsored by the Carib News Foundation Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (Mich.) and Donald Payne (N.J.) as well as Del. Donna Christensen (Virgin Islands). Standards announced its investigation a few weeks after receiving a referral from the OCE but claimed the committee had already been looking into the matter.
Under House rules, every Member or aide must obtain the ethics committees consent for privately sponsored travel, including a certification from the sponsor that the trip conforms to the chambers rules. Members are not allowed to accept multiple-day travel from private entities that employ lobbyists, but they may accept travel from nonprofits that are supported by private companies.
After each trip, Members and aides are also required to submit a form to the ethics committee certifying the travel, accommodations and activities matched those included in their pre-travel filing. It is unclear whether the ethics panel reviews those post-travel submissions.
The conservative National Legal and Policy Center attended the 2008 Carib News Foundation event in St. Maarten and collected evidence suggesting that the event was sponsored by corporate entities. The center takes credit for filing a complaint with the OCE suggesting that the Members violated Congressional travel rules by going on the trip.
This year, the conference begins today in Jamaica, but the foundation Web site indicates that no Members of Congress are participating. The Web site describes the event as a multinational business conference.