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Languid, Lax Congressional Ethics Disciplinary System May Pick Up Pace in 2015

With a new chairman — Isakson — in charge on the Senate side, will congressional ethics inquiries on Capitol Hill pick up the pace in 2015? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The final flurry of activity aside, it remains undeniable that members of the outgoing Congress accomplished precious little as legislators . Less noticed, but almost as clear, is how the “do-nothing” label also may be affixed to their efforts at policing themselves.  

The congressional ethics docket has been extraordinarily quiet the past two years. Given that human nature hasn’t changed, and that money’s potential to poison public service has only been permitted to expand, there’s no reason to believe lawmakers have suddenly and collectively decided to start behaving better.  

Instead it’s fair to suspect the watchdogs’ sense of smell has become as dull as ever, unconsciously or not. The members of the two Ethics committees are supposed to behave similarly to the officers in police departments' bureaus of internal affairs, getting to the bottom of suspected malfeasance without fear or favor and also without histrionics or zealotry. Given the little they have revealed of their work , it sure seems as though both panels have been proceeding at a leisurely pace — and setting a high bar for chastising the wrongdoing they come across.  

But there’s a decent shot congressional ethics will get more attention in the new year, from both the public and the members.  

Rep. Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., is reportedly planning to plead guilty on Tuesday to a single charge of tax evasion rather than become the first sitting member in a dozen years to go on trial in a federal criminal case. (He has been indicted on 20 counts of fraud related to his running of a health food restaurant.) If Grimm does not resign after admitting to a felony, House Ethics would almost certainly pursue its own sanctions early in the new year and could revive its investigations of other allegations against him.  

A bipartisan effort is bubbling in the House to change the chamber’s rules in January and require the members to take the annual ethics courses already required of senators and staffers on both sides of the Capitol.  

Recent reports suggest the committee may also be pressed to examine reports about a sweetheart stock deal for Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and sexual harassment allegations against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.  

And there will be new GOP chairmen at both of the Ethics committees, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, along with a new staff director for the Senate panel in Deborah Mayer, the top investigator for the House committee since 2011 and a public corruption prosecutor at the Justice Department before that.  

The House panel, backstopped and spurred on by the semi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics, publicly disclosed at least some interest in allegations against 6 percent of the membership of the 113th Congress. (There were 15 Democrats and 12 Republicans.) But the committee dismissed 10 cases outright, while expressing formal criticism of just three lawmakers.  

In June, it rebuked Rep. Don Young of Alaska, the House’s longest serving Republican, and ordered him to repay $59,000 from personal funds for improperly taking (and concealing) 15 free trips to hunting lodges and related gifts during the past dozen years. And on the final day before the House’s lame-duck session ended, the committee issued two additional letters of disapproval, which amounted to softer slaps on the wrist because no financial consequences were imposed. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., was taken to task for interfering in the Ethics panel’s investigation into whether her aides did campaign work on official time. Departing Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., was upbraided for arranging for Treasury and House officials to meet with executives of a community bank where he was an investor.  

But those three actions amounted to a prosecutorial crusade compared with the work of Senate Ethics, which has not said anything even mildly critical about a senator’s official conduct in 31 months. (It hasn’t said anything at all about its activities since January, when it reported dismissing all 26 complaints about senatorial wrongdoing received in 2013, only one of which the committee deemed worth of so much as a preliminary inquiry.)  

“Unless United States senators exhibit a degree of integrity unlike that of their House counterparts, there is clearly an institutional deficit in monitoring unsavory activity in the Senate,” Public Citizen said in an October report written in collaboration with several other watchdog groups. Those organizations urged senators to create an outside group to screen and investigate complaints and then forward the credible allegations to Senate Ethics for further inquiry and punishment — similar to the autonomous bipartisan panel of outsiders the House created in 2008.  

In good-government circles, that OCE is hailed as having brought new credibility and transparency to the ethics process . And, while some members of both parties still complain they’ve yielded too much sway over their behavior to outsiders, talk of the OCE’s closure has almost disappeared and its $1.5 million budget was maintained in the year-end appropriations package.  

The available records suggest the outside panel’s eight members and nine aides have been working at a steady clip, starting three dozen preliminary inquiries in the first nine months of the year, while forwarding to House Ethics 16 cases where there was solid evidence either federal law or House rules were broken.  

The watchdog groups say the OCE would be able to produce better work if it could issue subpoenas, but the House is showing no signs of granting the panel that power. Ultimately, as they have for decades , the members want to retain ultimate control over who among them get called to account.  

The past two years have shown the lawmakers are more permissive than the outsiders. On Dec. 11, while the House was preoccupied with its cliffhanger budget vote, the Ethics panel essentially cleared two members of charges the OCE took seriously. While the outside group said there was probable cause to believe Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., sexually harassed an aide, the committee said the evidence only supported a conclusion that he’d been “less than professional ” with her. And while the OCE found “substantial reason to believe” Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., had improperly advocated on behalf of two companies in which he had significant investment, the Ethics panel absolved the retiring congressman of willful wrongdoing, conceded its own staff may have given him bum advice and said the OCE may have misunderstood important facts in the case.  

Beyond those no-bills, the Ethics panel went home for the year without putting closure on half a dozen cases involving members who will be back in January — and in each case the OCE says there’s “substantial reason to believe” the lawmakers did something seriously wrong.  

The two freshest cases — involving allegedly improper donations of office space to Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., and the relationship between Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., and his lobbyist wife — have been in the committee’s “in” basket since June. The other four were forwarded to the House by OCE more than a year ago. They question the blending of official and campaign operations by Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington; the outside income of Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla.; the fundraising zeal of Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill.; and the employment practices of Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill.  

Several others are days away from leaving the House with their Ethics probes still officially in progress :  John F. Tierney, D-Mass., and Timothy H. Bishop, D-N.Y., were defeated this year in large part because of the behavioral clouds over their heads, while the polarizing Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., bowed out rather than face another campaign where her ethics would be an issue .  

In other words, as with the deadlocked legislative dynamic, for this year the political process was able to kick-start matters that Congress itself had consigned to indefinite limbo.  

   

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