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The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Rep. Jean Schmidt lied to the fact-finding body and the House Ethics Committee during prior inquiries into whether the Ohio Republican accepted free legal services in violation of Congressional gift rules.
The request, which was sent Wednesday to the independent office, says Schmidt avoided being sanctioned for accepting what the OCE and the Ethics Committee agreed was an improper gift of nearly $500,000 in free legal services by telling investigators that she was unaware of how her legal defense was paid for. Through a payment arrangement made between her attorneys at the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund and the Turkish Coalition of America, the coalition reimbursed the defense fund for helping Schmidt on a defamation case.
The exhibits attached to CREW’s letter, which include interview memorandums taken during the OCE investigation and testimony from proceedings before the Ohio Elections Commission, contain information that contradicts Schmidt’s claim that she did not know her legal bills were being paid and intended to pay them herself.
“While the inquiry into Rep. Schmidt’s failure to pay her legal bills is over, now the OCE should consider whether the congresswoman lied during the course of the investigation,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. “If Rep. Schmidt lied to investigators for the OCE and the House Ethics Committee, she may have committed a crime.”
Schmidt’s office on Wednesday dismissed the request as a partisan attack that has previously been resolved.
“Nobody should be surprised that a liberal group like CREW would recycle the ridiculous complaints of an obsessed former political opponent,” Schmidt Communications Director Barrett J. Brunsman said in an email statement. “That Democrat’s past claims have already been rejected by the House Ethics Committee, and this is nothing more than grandstanding by CREW.”
Schmidt’s $500,000 legal tab with the TALDF stems from its representation of the Ohio Congresswoman in a defamation claim she filed with the Ohio Election Commission against Democratic challenger David Krikorian after the 2008 elections.
The OCE in May concluded that the legal representation she received from lawyers at the defense fund likely violated Congressional gift rules because Schmidt had not yet established a legal defense fund that would allow her to accept money earmarked for legal debts and because the fees owed to the defense fund were not listed on Schmidt’s annual financial disclosure forms.
At that point, the OCE referred the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which reviews the office’s findings and is empowered to mete out punishment. Though the committee in August agreed that Schmidt’s acceptance of the legal services constituted an improper gift, it said it would not impose further sanctions because she was unaware of the compensation agreement between the defense fund and the coalition.
“The Committee’s review of the matter indicated that Representative Schmidt did, in fact, receive an impermissible gift from TCA as OCE has alleged, and therefore the Committee did not dismiss the OCE matter,” a statement released by the committee in August read. “However, the Committee has found that Representative Schmidt’s lawyers failed to inform her of their payment arrangement with TCA, and made false and misleading statements to her about their relationship with TCA and TALDF. ... Representative Schmidt must now disclose and repay the gift.”
Schmidt has yet to file amended disclosures that detail debts she incurred with the TALDF, according to House records.
The CREW complaint filed Wednesday cites a confidential summary of OCE interviews with Bruce Fein, one of Schmidt’s lawyers at the legal defense fund, and Barry Bennett, her former chief of staff. Fein told OCE investigators that he “explained TALDF’s legal services were provided at no charge to Representative Schmidt and that was his understanding at their first meeting,” according to one attached memorandum. Though Bennett told investigators that Schmidt was waiting to see whether contingency-fee payment agreements were permitted under House ethics rules, Fein told investigators that “the legal services for the defamation suit are not part of a contingency fee arrangement. The services are pro bono like any other services provided,” the summary of his interview said.
“The public record speaks for us. I don’t think I have anything more to add,” Fein said Wednesday when reached at his office.
If the OCE decides to launch a new probe into Schmidt’s knowledge of the fee arrangement, two members of its eight-member board — one appointed by the Minority Leader and one appointed by the Majority Leader — must submit a written request to start a preliminary review. After that, three votes would be needed for it to proceed to the sort of formal investigative stage that could result in a referral of its findings to the Ethics Committee.