Oct. 2, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Empty Ethics Posts Draw Critics' Ire

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Boehner and Pelosi, above, are responsible for filling two OCE vacancies each, with each other’s consent, and must also reauthorize the chairman, co-chairman and alternate members for the 113th Congress.

“When they say ‘appropriate time,’ I think they mean that in the broadest sense. I think it’s quite possible that we’ll be into January when it actually happens, and they’ll make the argument ‘no harm, no foul,’” Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center said.

The OCE is a quasi-independent fact-finding agency created by the House in 2008 to review allegations of wrongdoing and spur the Ethics Committee into action. It conducts its reviews in two stages: a preliminary 30-day review, followed by a 45-day second-phase review that may be extended for an additional two weeks.

There are eight board members. A board member appointed by each party must initiate a preliminary probe; the approval of three, with a quorum of five voting, is needed to continue to the second phase. Four board members are needed to transmit the office’s findings to the Ethics Committee.

Even if the chairman, co-chairman and alternate board members are reauthorized, four board vacancies would prevent the office from proceeding to the second stage of any open matter, effectively ending the stream of cases it refers to the committee.

“Our letter [to Boehner and Pelosi] is brief and to the point. It  . . .  calls their attention to the fact that with half the board expiring, the agency is in danger of going defunct in the 113th Congress, and they certainly don’t want to see that happen,” Holman said.

As CQ Roll Call has reported, government-accountability groups on both sides of the aisle have largely praised the OCE’s work, following battles over its establishment and a subsequent period of acrimony between the office and the Ethics Committee.

The outside ethics office has also caught the attention of constituents outside the Beltway.

Christopher Finney, a Cincinnati-based attorney and active member of a Southern Ohio tea-party-aligned group known as COAST, says the OCE provides a path for constituents to hold their lawmakers accountable. Finney represented Democratic challenger David Krikorian in a series of legal disputes with outgoing Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, who was ordered to repay a Turkish-American interest group for hundreds of thousands of dollars of free legal assistance that the Ethics Committee eventually concluded was an impermissible gift.

“The case we brought against Jean Schmidt would have never moved forward had it not been for the OCE. It would be a terrible loss if it were not properly and fully constituted. I have confidence that [leadership] is serious enough about ethics and about their responsibility to the public that they’ll appoint people,” Finney said.

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