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Ethics Board Rebuts Ethics Committee Criticism of Its Work

The Office of Congressional Ethics released a seven-page missive Tuesday refuting criticisms of its investigative process made by the House ethics committee in late October, and marking the public airing of tensions in the chamber’s two-tiered ethics process.

The Nov. 20 memorandum addresses the House ethics committee’s critique of an OCE investigation of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), which the committee declared “fundamentally flawed” in an Oct. 29 report dismissing the inquiry. The memo also reiterates the OCE’s status as a quasi-independent House office, operating without oversight from the ethics committee.

“As a general matter the Board finds no authority under which the [ethics committee] may interpose its judgment on the validity of a referral from the OCE based on its evaluation of the adequacy of the OCE’s procedures,” the memorandum states.

“Under the new ethics framework established by House Resolution 895 of the 110th Congress, as amended (hereafter the “Resolution”) the OCE is to be independent of and not subject to oversight by the [ethics committee],” the OCE wrote. The memo, approved unanimously by the OCE board, concluded: “The Board believes the interests of the House and the public will be better served if both the [ethics committee] and the OCE each focus on their own internal rules.”

The House established the OCE in 2008 to review potential rules violations and recommend investigations to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the ethics committee.

While Standards is comprised of current Members, the OCE’s board includes ex-lawmakers, as well as former House and Federal Election Commission officials.

In the previous year, the two ethics bodies have sparred privately over jurisdictional and process issues. That sparring has erupted into the public view in connection to the Graves investigation.

The Missouri lawmaker faced questions over his decision to invite his wife’s business partner and friend to testify in March before the Small Business Committee, where Graves is the ranking Member.

The Standards committee first acknowledged its review of the OCE referral of the Graves case in mid-September, at the same time raising questions over whether the OCE had failed to provide the Missouri lawmaker with key evidence. It voiced similar criticisms in its October report.

The OCE, which had earlier refuted those allegations, reiterated its defense in Friday’s memorandum, and disputed charges that it “ignored” evidence provided by Graves.

“The OCE did not withhold exculpatory information,” the memorandum states. “In fact, the [ethics panel’s] criticism that the OCE did not provide ‘potentially favorable’ materials appears to depart from the [ethics panel’s] own standard which defines exculpatory information as ‘substantially favorable.’”

The memorandum goes on to outline the OCE’s standards, citing legal precedents governing the use of evidence in federal criminal law.

The memorandum also rejects the ethics committee’s determination that OCE cannot rely on the ethics manual — a publication authored by Standards to interpret House rules and offer guidance to Members and staff — in its investigations.

In its dismissal of the Graves matter, Standards ruled that OCE had used “incorrect rules” to evaluate the Missouri lawmaker.

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