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Ethics Battle Still Brewing Over Azerbaijan Travel

The ethics watchdogs want Dent to release full findings from the Azerbaijan travel probe. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

After it provoked a dispute  between key players in Capitol Hill's ethics enforcement process, Congress handed a probe of Azerbaijan travel to the executive branch and headed out for recess. But the battle is still brewing in Washington.  

On Wednesday, watchdogs who have long lobbied Congress to get more serious about self-policing blasted the House Ethics Committee's decision to close the case involving nine lawmakers without releasing a 70-page report from Office of Congressional Ethics investigators as "unprecedented." Instead of posting OCE's findings — a summary of allegations, fact-finding activity, plus the rules, laws and standards of conduct at play — the committee released a 28-page report on July 31, which ultimately cleared lawmakers, including one member of the committee, of any wrongdoing. It stated evidence of possible criminal efforts by trip planners would be referred to the Justice Department.  

Without naming names, the report revealed that six members who accepted “tangible gifts” during the trips had complied with the committee's instructions to return or “otherwise remedy” the violation. An appendix included sparse one-page summaries from OCE that suggest investigators found substantial reason to believe the trips violated and federal law, but not the narrative of findings that often read like an indictment. The committee declared the full report supplemental material, because it was delivered after they ordered OCE to stop investigating.  

But congressional scholars Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann and James Thurber, and groups including the Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Common Cause, have demanded the committee "immediately release" the more extensive OCE report.  

In a letter to committee leaders that raises concern that Congress is turning its back on public disclosure requirements, critics pointed to administrative rules the committee allegedly violated in its handling of the months-long probe.  

The letter challenges the committee on its role in approving the all-expenses-paid trips and its authority to request OCE "cease and refer" its own probe before findings were complete. It also asks whether House Ethics Chairman Charlie Dent , R-Pa., should have recused himself because of alleged political contributions from individuals associated with the trip's sponsor, reported by the Center for Responsive Politics. "If this situation is not clarified, it could establish a dangerous precedent that would allow the Ethics Committee to order the OCE, a supposedly independent body, to 'cease and refer' at any time, regardless whether the Committee meets the legal conditions for such an extraordinary order," the letter addressed to Dent and ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., states.  

A spokesman for the committee declined to comment on the record about the request.  

OCE is also staying mum about the controversy, and whether its board might vote to release its findings independently. Since the agency's 2009 formation, one other case has been released pursuant to such a vote.  

On March 29, 2010, OCE released a report citing evidence that Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican who resigned from the House while under investigation to run for Georgia governor, had improperly used his position to pressure officials to continue a state-level vehicle program that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for his family’s auto salvage business. Deal had resigned from the House hours before the Ethics Committee would have released the report, removing himself from the committee's jurisdiction.

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