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Congressional Ethics Inquiries Helped Sweep Some Lawmakers Out of Office

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
In California, Richardson, above, faced an uphill battle to best Hahn in a Democrat-on-Democrat race in a new Los Angeles-area district.

Congressional ethics inquiries helped tank some lawmakers’ re-election bids and proved to be only minor annoyances in others, remaking the slate of open cases before the House Ethics Committee as it heads into the next Congress.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., was the most visible casualty.

The committee’s July announcement that it would formally investigate Berkley’s role in saving a kidney transplant program at a hospital that contracted with her husband’s nephrology practice quickly became a liability in her bid to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller. Both campaigns spent money and airtime addressing the allegations, which were first reported by The New York Times.

“It was the single reason why she lost,” said a Democratic source in Nevada familiar with the campaign. “If she had half the baggage she had going into that race, we’d be referring to her as Senator Berkley right now.”

The loss likely means that the committee’s probe will end without a conclusion, given its timetable and the fact that investigative subcommittees must be reauthorized at the beginning of each Congress. A report from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics on the case will still be released.

In California, Rep. Laura Richardson’s already uphill battle to best Rep. Janice Hahn in a Democrat-on-Democrat race in a new Los Angeles-area district became steeper after the House reprimanded her in August. A committee investigation concluded Richardson had likely violated House rules and federal law by forcing her congressional staffers to engage in compulsory campaign work.

Other lawmakers, including Reps. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, and Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, saw their re-election bids end even earlier when opponents seized on alleged ethical lapses during primary campaigns.

Though Schmidt was essentially cleared of wrongdoing after accepting roughly $500,000 worth of legal assistance from a Turkish-American interest group, it became a talking point in her redrawn Ohio district. Her GOP challenger, Brad Wenstrup, will take her seat in January.

The committee in August received the Reyes matter from the OCE. Though details about the probe have not been released, a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington report earlier this year singled out Reyes for using his re-election campaign to reimburse himself and his family members $400,000 over two election cycles.

Reyes’ primary opponent, former El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke, and an anti-incumbent super PAC both cited the CREW report during the primary campaign. The committee is slated to make its next announcement on the case at the end of this month, at which time the OCE report will be released, except in the unlikely event an investigative subcommittee is formed.

Open cases involving other incumbents, including those of Reps. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., and Robert Andrews, D-N.J., didn’t seem to factor in their re-election bids.

The committee for several years has been reviewing allegations that Jackson offered to raise money for former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in exchange for being appointed to a vacant Senate seat. Despite that, he easily won re-election in his Chicago-area district. Jackson has been absent from Congress and the campaign trail since June due to treatment at the Mayo Clinic for bipolar disorder.

News reports surfaced almost immediately after the election that Jackson is in the midst of negotiating a plea deal with the Justice Department in an unrelated case about the misuse of campaign funds for personal expenses. If, as part of that deal, Jackson leaves Congress, any ongoing ethics probes would likely end.

Andrews also cruised through his re-election bid despite a inquiry into whether he used his congressional campaign and leadership PAC to pay for family trips and a high school graduation party. The committee announced in August that it would continue reviewing the case, which originated in the OCE, but would do so without forming a formal investigative subcommittee. The OCE report on the case was released along with the announcement.

Andrews said at the time of the committee’s announcement that its decision to keep the matter open did not indicate wrongdoing and expressed confidence he would be exonerated.

Ethics observers say even when investigations are cut short by election losses or departures, the automatic release of the OCE reports provide insight into the process.

“We wouldn’t even have heard of many of these cases. The public element of OCE is its muscle,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen.

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