Ethics Training Set to Begin This Week

Posted April 9, 2007 at 5:54pm

The House ethics committee is ramping up its educational efforts this week to comply with new guidelines mandating annual classes for the approximately 10,000 House officers and employees, who must now certify in writing by Jan. 31 of each year that they have taken part in at least one hour of general ethics training.

In a public advisory memo released April 3, Standards of Official Conduct Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) announced that training sessions would be held April 11, 13 and 27. Starting in May, training sessions will be held every Friday in the Capitol throughout the year.

Enacted by Democrats in the House rules package at the start of the 110th Congress, the new requirements mean a big increase in the ethics committee’s workload. The panel’s legal counsels will run the training sessions and the committee also will be the clearinghouse for the hard-copy letters submitted by thousands of employees certifying they have completed training.

While the panel has long held voluntary training sessions for Members and staff, they are now responsible for not only schooling thousands of employees on ethics rules, but to also independently verify that each individual has taken the class.

Those who do not complete training by the Jan. 31 deadline will be notified by the ethics panel in writing and be subject to penalties because the new requirements fall under the code of official conduct provisions in House Rules.

Additionally, the new rules require that as of March 1, 2007, all new employees must complete ethics training and certify it to the panel within 60 days of their start date.

While the rules create a new employment requirement for all House officers and employees, Members and Delegates are exempted from the new rule. They can opt to take ethics training — and the rules require the ethics committee to offer it — but they do not have to file certification forms like aides do.

Staffers familiar with the provisions said that legal questions have been raised in the past over using House rules to require Members to take ethics training and provide written certifications because it would be a “condition of service” for holding the office, which some view as unconstitutional.

All officers and some senior-level employees also will have to take an additional hour of advanced training. “The additional hour of training may include specialized briefings on the rules and requirements concerning campaign activities, the financial disclosure requirements, the rules on hosting official events, case work considerations, and the outside earned income and employment limitations and related rules on outside activities, including possible conflict of interest considerations,” the April 3 memo states.

Any employee that has to file an annual Financial Disclosure Statement will trigger the new requirement for an additional hour of training. The requirement will be based on an annual salary threshold of $111,675 or greater for 2007.

The requirement also affects all district office employees, who will be able to meet their requirement by watching a tape of a live training session and sending certifications to the committee. Ethics also is working on developing Web-based training seminars for employees outside the Beltway.

Additionally, every office must designate an “ethics certification officer” to the ethics committee no later than April 30, who will be charged with compiling and submitting the office’s completed ethics certification forms no later than Jan. 31.

It remains to be seen if ultimately ethics will require training for all House employees in lower-level administrative offices that oversee functions like the Flag Office and the cafeterias.

One source familiar with the new rule said that, as written, the rule does not distinguish employees and would technically affect every single House officer and employee. However, it is not necessarily the intent of the rule to make it apply to employees who play no role in the legislative process, and the source indicated that the ethics panel may be able to exercise some discretion over who has to attend training sessions.