More than a year ago, the Office of Congressional Ethics began investigating whether Rep. Michael M. Honda’s staff crossed congressional duties with campaign activities. The case was later referred to the House Committee on Ethics, which in September indicated it would take up the review indefinitely.
That has left the California Democrat open to constant hammering from his primary opponent’s campaign, which is stating allegations as fact and pointing to the nearly $100,000 that Honda has spent defending himself.
Honda's case is one of seven languishing before the panel with no deadline to determine a final outcome.
“This kind of ethics purgatory is certainly not constructive,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that oversees ethics and election law. McGehee said delaying such decisions is detrimental for those under investigation but also to voters who must decide whom to send to office.
The campaign of Ro Khanna, who is vying for Honda’s 17th District seat in California’s Democratic primary in June, freely uses the ethics allegations to propel his challenge to the eight-term incumbent representing Silicon Valley. Khanna lost to Honda by 3.6 percent in the 2014 primary – before the allegations arose.
Honda campaign spokesman Vedant Patel said it was inappropriate for the Khanna campaign to use the ethics complaint as if it was a statement of fact instead of a review into how Honda and his staff conducted business during election years.
"There is a process in place that we are 100 percent complying with," Patel said. Khanna's spokesman, Hari Sevugan, told Roll Call that the campaign is relying on a public report questioning Honda's conduct.
Honda’s case began in September 2014, when San Jose Inside published a report exposing internal emails that suggested Honda's congressional staff was working on campaign-related activity, at times while on the public payroll. OCE began investigating Honda after a complaint was filed in January 2015.
OCE was created in 2008 to investigate ethics complaints filed by the public. It then refers cases to the House Ethics Committee. After 90 days, the committee is required to make certain reports public and publicly state how it will handle the case moving forward.
OCE concluded there was “substantial reason” to believe Honda and his staff may have used information from the congressional office for campaign purposes and discussed campaign matters during meetings at the district office and on staff retreats.
In a July 2015 response, Honda’s attorneys said in a filing that the report “addresses actions which either do not violate applicable ethics rules or, at worst, present narrow concerns.” Attorneys also argued there was no credible evidence staff knowingly violated standards of conduct.
In September 2015, the Ethics Committee said in a statement it was conducting further review of Honda’s case under a House rule that allows the panel to continue its own investigation but provides no deadline for formally resolving the matter.
Honda’s most recent campaign finance disclosure shows he spent nearly $87,000 on legal services, $70,000 of which was paid to the private attorneys representing him in the ethics case. The report also shows Honda’s campaign paid more than $15,000 to a California public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications.
The Khanna campaign spent much of February focused on the money that Honda doled out on lawyers representing him in the ethics case and on crisis communication.
The Ethics Committee reminds the public those members under review are not assumed to be guilty. That doesn’t stop others from mixing up the message, said Brian Svoboda, an attorney who represents members under ethics investigations.
“Either no one believes it, or no one chooses to take it at face value,” Svoboda said. “Yet, that doesn’t stop the rest of the world from talking about it as if it was true.”
The Committee on Ethics and its chairman, Charlie Dent, R-Pa., would not comment on any activities by the panel.
Some cases pending a decision by the committee are older than Honda’s, including those where an indefinite pending review was issued in early 2014. That means Honda could be waiting for a final decision well past the election.
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