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 OCE’s 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 OCE’s 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 committee’s consent for privately sponsored travel, including a certification from the sponsor that the trip conforms to the chamber’s 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.
The OCE investigation created an awkward situation for the ethics committee. All of the Members who traveled to the Carib News event submitted the required documentation to the committee and received approval from the committee to make the journey. The issue then becomes whether the Carib News Foundation paid for that travel with funds earmarked by corporate sponsors and whether the Members had some obligation to leave the conference when and if they became aware that there were corporate sponsors for the event.
The late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) attended the event in 2007 when she was serving as chairwoman of the ethics committee and was listed on the agenda as a speaker. One of the attendees in prior years, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), is serving as the chairman of the investigative subcommittee created by Standards to investigate the other Members.
Members who have come under the spotlight of the OCE have raised concerns that, as in the Graves case, even if Standards exonerates a Member, it will still release the OCE report criticizing a Member’s conduct, which provides political opponents ammunition to accuse the Members of unethical behavior.
None of the Members’ offices involved in the case would comment for this story, but a letter from Thompson to the ethics committee dated Aug. 11 and posted on the House Clerk’s Web site indicates the Mississippi lawmaker may have met with ethics in mid-September and turned over documents from the 2007 and 2008 Carib News trips.
Standards typically meets with Members toward the end of its investigations, suggesting that the committee’s work on the Carib News trip may be nearing an end.
Neither OCE nor Standards would provide any comment for this story.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.