The Office of Congressional Ethics is investigating Rep. Jean Schmidt’s receipt of legal assistance from a Turkish-American interest group that has represented her in a host of proceedings in Ohio, one of the Republican’s counsels confirmed Friday.
Schmidt attorney Bruce Fein declined to answer questions about how he is paid, saying he is responding to a request from the OCE, the board that reviews potential rules violations and recommends investigations to the House Ethics Committee.
“We’ll be making proper responses to an outstanding inquiry,” said Fein, an attorney with the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund and a resident scholar at the Turkish Coalition of America.
Fein did not detail the inquiry, and the OCE does not comment publicly on its work or confirm whether it is reviewing specific matters.
But Democrat David Krikorian, who has twice sought to challenge Schmidt for the 2nd district seat, has filed multiple complaints to the OCE, alleging that the Ohio lawmaker improperly received free legal services from the TCA and its legal defense fund in violation of House rules. It is not known whether the OCE investigation stems from Krikorian’s complaints.
In a statement Monday, Schmidt spokesman Brian Pfaff acknowledged the Ohio lawmaker had not received a bill from TALDF for its work to date but said Schmidt had followed House rules.
“We have been working with the Committee on Standards since the outset of this legal action to make sure we are acting in full compliance with House rules,” Pfaff said. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was renamed the Ethics Committee this year.
Schmidt’s office dismissed similar allegations in July, when Krikorian filed his first complaint with the OCE. At that time, Schmidt’s office said the lawmaker had received written advice from the Ethics Committee on her legal arrangement, although the office declined to provide a copy of the letter.
Schmidt also asked the Ethics Committee in July for permission to establish a legal expense fund, which would allow her to receive donations to pay her legal bills.
But public records maintained by the Clerk of the House showed no indication that such an account exists, and Pfaff said last week that it has yet to be approved by the Ethics Committee.
“The committee is aware that the Congresswoman is represented by TALDF and that we will not be billed until a legal expense trust is formally approved and established. At that time, we will receive a bill for all appropriate legal fees and services connected with these cases,” Pfaff said Monday. “As I’m sure you are aware, the Committee does not typically explain its process. We have been assured that we have answered all of the committee’s questions and provided all necessary information and await approval of the trust.”
Schmidt and Krikorian have tangled repeatedly since the 2008 election cycle, challenging each other before the Ohio Elections Commission, the Ohio courts and U.S. district court.
In the only pending case, Schmidt filed a defamation suit in the Clermont County Common Pleas Court in June against Krikorian, seeking $6.8 million in damages. Krikorian, an Armenian-American has accused Schmidt of accepting funds from Turkish political interests. In October 2009, the Ohio Elections Commission ruled that Krikorian made false statements when he circulated a flier in 2008 containing similar accusations.
In his second complaint to the OCE, filed in late January, Krikorian highlights a series of documents generated in that Clermont County case.
In particular, Krikorian points to a document related to a request from Schmidt’s legal team to allow Fein to appear in the Ohio court that acknowledges Fein is not paid by Schmidt or her campaign.
“As defendants acknowledge, Mr. Fein has testified under oath that he never provided free legal services to plaintiff,” Schmidt’s Ohio-based attorney Donald Brey wrote. “The Turkish Coalition of America ... has consistently funded Fein’s representation of Jean Schmidt as senior counsel at the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund ... for the duration of her several legal actions against Defendant Krikorian.”
When asked about the accuracy of that statement Friday, Fein declined to respond, citing the OCE’s request. Fein was also a former counsel to Congress in the Iran-Contra probe and a deputy attorney general under the Reagan administration.
Pfaff did not indicate Monday whether Schmidt or her office had been contacted by the OCE, but he said in a statement: “Congresswoman Schmidt would welcome any action by the Office of Congressional Ethics or the House [Ethics Committee] that would once and for all confirm that she has complied with House ethics rules.”
Krikorian said Monday that he had not been contacted by the OCE, other than a letter confirming the receipt of his complaint in early February.
“We just want to know what were the bills and who paid them?” said Krikorian, who ran as an Independent 2008 and lost the 2010 Democratic primary in his second attempt to challenge Schmidt.
According to the House Ethics Manual, a Member may accept pro bono legal services under certain circumstances, such as the filing of friend-of-the-court briefs or civil actions challenging the validity of a federal law or regulation.
Members are also allowed to establish legal defense funds, with the permission of the Ethics Committee, for cases related to the Member’s official duties, as well as criminal prosecutions or “a civil matter bearing on the individual‘s reputation or fitness for office,” the manual states.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.