Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Tensions Between Ethics Watchdogs Evident in Per Diem Inquiry

The House Ethics Committee cited “insufficient evidence” and shuttered an investigation Friday into whether six lawmakers misused official travel funds, even as some Members acknowledged keeping the money or spending it on items such as souvenirs for their offices or families.

The committee’s report also highlighted continuing tensions with the Office of Congressional Ethics, which recommended the probes to the House panel, over investigative methods and interpretations of the chamber’s rules.

According to the 805-page report released Friday by the ethics committee, the OCE reviewed whether each of the Members had improperly kept excess per diem funds issued for official Congressional travel, known as a CODEL, between 2008 and 2010. The lawmakers denied violating rules.

The funds were intended for meals or other approved expenses. In its evaluation, the OCE determined that six lawmakers retained excess funds ranging from $428 to $2,811, based on estimates of each lawmaker’s travel expenses.

But the House Ethics Committee rejected the OCE’s estimates, including its use of Members’ official itineraries to estimate meal costs and even lawmakers’ admissions that they may have used the funds for nonessential items, like gifts.

“The Committee concludes that there is insufficient evidence to determine with any degree of certainty that any one of the Members were provided an amount of per diem that was not necessary for their respective trips,” the panel stated in its report.

“While OCE also relies on statements to the press and to OCE by the Members that they have purchased meals or gifts for foreign officials, staff or aircrew members who supported the trip, a use of per diem that the Committee would agree would not be appropriate, there is no evidence that per diem was actually used for such expenses, or that the amount of per diem if used was not de minimis,” the report said.

The OCE had reviewed trips taken by Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).

Members are not required to maintain receipts for their per diem expenses, and some of the six lawmakers said they often commingled their own funds with their government-issued local currency or used the funds to repay expenses charged to their personal credit cards or bank accounts.

Because individual receipts were not available, OCE investigators instead relied on official trip itineraries to estimate costs for each Member by determining how many official or “leisure” meals were scheduled.

According to summaries of its interviews with the six lawmakers, OCE investigators also sought to determine whether a Member’s meals most often fell into one of three categories: official events provided at no charge, meals paid for by the military and later billed to the Member, and meals paid for by the Member.

But the ethics committee rejected the OCE’s method, citing arguments offered by Hastings that many of those meals are receptions with limited food or where Members do not eat. The committee also said Members may not adhere to official travel itineraries filed with the House and asserted there is no proof that Hastings or the other lawmakers even attended the events tallied in the OCE reports.

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