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Watchdogs Square Off With Lawyers Over Ethics Rules

A coalition of government watchdog organizations is at odds with a bipartisan group of attorneys over rules published by an independent ethics office related to cases of congressional misconduct.

The Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Common Cause, among others, charged that the attorneys’ Feb. 4 request that the Office of Independent Ethics vacate the rules and ask for public input was “inappropriate” because it would “impede the agency’s ability to make the ethics process more accountable and transparent.”

“It comes as no surprise that some of the attorneys who have represented clients before the agency propose a series of rules changes that would further restrict OCE’s limited authority and tie the agency’s hands,” the groups said in a letter they sent to the OCE on Wednesday. “The attorneys propose that the agency’s fact-finding mission be bound by burdensome procedural rules allowing the attorneys to challenge OCE at each step of compiling information.”

Other groups behind the letter include Democracy 21, the National Legal and Policy Center, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation and U.S. PIRG.

The House created the OCE in 2008 as an independent fact-finding entity to review possible misconduct. The office conducts its investigations in two stages: a 30-day preliminary review followed by a 45-day second-phase review that can be extended an additional 14 days. At that point, it sends the case to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation to either review the case further or dismiss it. The committee ultimately decides whether a violation of House rules or law has occurred and can levy appropriate sanctions. There is no equivalent body for the Senate.

At the time of its creation, some of the organizations that worked with a bipartisan task force to establish an outside ethics office were worried that the end result had deprived the OCE of essential powers, including the authority to subpoena witnesses and determine guilt or innocence.

In Wednesday’s letter, the groups said that despite those concerns, the OCE “has performed admirably in screening out frivolous cases, compiling useful information for cases by the Ethics Committee and providing a valuable link between the public and the congressional ethics process.”

The letter the attorneys sent to the OCE earlier this month was signed by Stanley Brand of the Brand Law Group, Christopher DeLacy of Holland & Knight, Joseph Sandler of Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb, Brian Svoboda and Karl Sandstrom of Perkins Coie, Elliot Berke and William Farah of McGuire Woods, Cleta Mitchell of Foley & Lardner, William McGinley of Patton Boggs and Robert Kelner of Covington & Burling.

When the attorneys initially sent their letter, OCE Staff Director and Chief Counsel Omar Ashmawy said the rules they cited were merely a codification of the same standards the office had used for the past four years in its investigations.

“There are no surprises here,” Ashmawy said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the day the government watchdog groups sent the letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics. It was Wednesday.

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