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House Ethics Panel Reviewed 36 Members in 2009

At least 36 lawmakers — about 8 percent of the House membership — came under scrutiny by the ethics committee in the first half of the 111th Congress, Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) revealed Wednesday.

Lofgren detailed the normally secretive ethics committee’s workload in testimony before the House Administration Committee, as part of her request for an increase of $600,000 to pay for additional staff this year.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, conducted “investigative fact-gathering” targeting 36 of the chamber’s 441 lawmakers, seven House employees and “one general matter” in 2009, Lofgren said.

“Within the scope of its investigative responsibilities, there are currently 48 investigative matters before the Committee,” Lofgren said in her prepared testimony. “The Committee’s workload, just within its investigative unit, is substantial.”

Those statistics stand in stark contrast to previous data released by the ethics committee — which like other House panels must issue a biennial report on its activities — such as the report from the 110th Congress stating that it had reviewed 19 lawmakers during the two-year period. Reports covering the 109th and 108th sessions, respectively, cite the same or even fewer Member-focused “fact-finding” reviews.

At least some of the 43 “fact-gathering” inquiries were carried over from the previous Congress, Lofgren said in her testimony. In a midyear report, the ethics panel noted it had continued 11 matters from the previous session, although it did not specify whether those reviews included multiple Members or subjects.

According to Lofgren’s testimony, the committee resolved 25 “investigative matters” in the first session “without empaneling an investigative subcommittee or taking other formal action.” It is not clear whether those inquiries included multiple Members or staff.

Government reform advocates, who have lobbied for more transparency in the secretive House ethics process, praised the disclosure Wednesday.

“Every number that we learn about the ethics process is more transparent than the way it’s been operating in the past,” said Lisa Gilbert, a democracy advocate at U.S. PIRG.

Similarly, Public Citizen’s Craig Holman characterized the number of investigations as “fundamental change in the way the ethics committee is operating,” crediting the modification to the Office of Congressional Ethics.

The House established the OCE in 2008 to review alleged rules violations and recommend investigations to the House, largely to address concerns to increase transparency in the ethics complaint process.

But Holman acknowledged that additions to ethics committee staff — which filled nine vacancies in 2009, bringing its total to 24 aides — also contributed to the increase in activity.

“I’m sure being fully staffed is certainly a factor,” Holman said. “Not only have they not had an executive director for a long period of time, but they frequently didn’t have their full staff contingent.”

Indeed, before Lofgren took over the committee in 2009, it had been plagued with long-term vacancies. Filling those vacancies has enabled the panel to catch up on a substantial backlog of requests on ethics advice, Lofgren said. At one point, she said, the delay was nearly two years — long after the advice would have been useful to an ethically confused Member.

But now that the panel is fully staffed, Lofgren wants to hire five more aides to handle what she called an “incredible workload.”

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