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Election Year Limits Ethics Office

While election-year restrictions on the Office of Congressional Ethics could create a bottleneck of its investigative referrals to the House, government watchdogs say the potential delays should not significantly impede the ethics process.

The OCE, tasked with reviewing potential rules violations and referring investigations to the House ethics committee, opened 25 inquiries in 2009, ultimately recommending 12 of those cases to the House panel for further review.

In the coming months, the OCE for the first time must work around blackout periods dictated by the election calendar — including Congressional primaries and general elections, as well as state and local races.

Under the House resolution establishing the OCE, the office is prohibited from forwarding any recommendations to the Committee on Standards on Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics committee, in the 60 days before an election if the subject of an investigation is a candidate in that contest.

“It was part of the cautionary efforts that went into setting up the Office of Congressional Ethics,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, one of the government reform advocates who advised the House task force that created the OCE’s framework.

“Many Members in the House feared that OCE would be used as a political electioneering tool against their elections,” Holman added, noting the blackout restrictions resulted from “a great deal of compromise.”

The OCE rules are similar to those that apply to the ethics committee, which prohibit the panel from accepting a formal complaint — which may only be filed by a Member — within 60 days of an election in which the subject of the complaint is a candidate.

Notably, such formal grievances are rare: Although Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) filed a complaint in 2008 calling for an inquiry into his own fundraising efforts on behalf of a City College of New York facility that bears his name, an informal truce has otherwise held since the 108th Congress, when then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) filed a complaint against then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Aside from the prohibition on formal complaints, however, the ethics committee is not otherwise limited in its work during an election year. The panel is allowed to open new investigations and continue ongoing probes, and could even issue rulings if it opted to.

While the OCE is also permitted to continue its investigative work during the blackout phases, the 60-day hold could prevent the committee from issuing any referrals to the ethics committee — its primary function — for up to four months at a time in an election year.

In states with May primaries, for example, the blackout date would halt referrals from March to the day following the election. OCE referrals could then continue until the blackout period for the November general election begins in early September.

But in the handful of states with mid-September primaries, the OCE could be prohibited from referring investigations beginning in mid-July and extending through the day after Election Day.

If a Member were to lose a primary, however, the OCE could refer an investigation after the primary occurred.

In addition, the House resolution creating the OCE also allows the ethics committee to defer its consideration of any OCE referrals during the 60-day blackout periods.

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