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Just four years after Congress created an outside office to speed up House ethics proceedings, the House Ethics Committee has begun using a pre-existing rule to extend its review of cases past the deadline set by those who developed the guidelines on how the two bodies should work in tandem.
The delay in the resolution of cases referred to the Ethics Committee by the Office of Congressional Ethics has government watchdog groups and legal experts questioning whether the process has been weakened; others posit that the panel could simply be overworked and unable to complete its review in the time allotted.
Cases currently on the committee's docket that were referred by the OCE and have now reverted to a preliminary investigative stage that requires no further public disclosure include those of Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).
"The pressure that was supposed to be created by the OCE to prevent cases from going into a black hole, over time, has gotten weaker and weaker," Campaign Legal Center's Meredith McGehee said.
Congress voted to create the Office of Congressional Ethics in March 2008 after a string of scandals that were exacerbated by a Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which the Ethics panel was then called, that declined to meet. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged to "drain the swamp" in part by establishing an outside entity to review allegations of Member misconduct. A bipartisan task force headed by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) worked with a coalition of groups that included Public Citizen, Campaign Legal Center and U.S. PIRG for more than a year before recommending the creation of an independent office.
Some of the organizations working with the task force — Public Citizen and Campaign Legal Center included — advised that in order for an outside office to be effective, it should function as an investigative, prosecutorial-type body that referred its findings to the committee for adjudication and punishment. But the OCE was instead set up as the preliminary stage in a bifurcated investigative process that continues after its findings reach the panel.