House Ethics Panel Leaves Funding Unspent

Posted July 15, 2008 at 6:47pm

The House ethics panel has left significant portions of its annual budget unspent during each of the past five years, a review of House spending records shows.

According to an analysis of the quarterly spending records maintained by the House, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has ended each calendar year with at least 20 percent of its annual budget unused.

In 2007, the panel left more than $560,000 in its coffers, nearly 23 percent of the $2.46 million budget designated to it.

The ethics committee does not comment publicly on its work, but Congressional ethics experts suggest those unspent funds could be intended for use in any investigations the panel may undertake, to provide for costs — including transportation of witnesses, staff travel and documentation — and even the possibility of additional staff members.

“You don’t want to put the committee in the position of having to come back and ask for more money, in part because it could expose the fact that the committee is conducting investigations or at least raises unwanted questions about their activities,” said Ted Van Der Meid, a former staff director and chief counsel for the ethics committee under then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), now with the firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Still, Gary Kalman, federal legislative affairs director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the leftover funds raise questions about the workings of the highly secretive panel, which rarely divulges its investigations.

“You’re talking about a committee that so far as we know has not followed up on investigations in the last several years, including some high-profile incidents,” Kalman said, referring to federal investigations of current and former Members.

The ethics panel has announced four investigative subcommittees to date in the 110th Congress, but it has deferred to the Justice Department in two of those cases involving unrelated investigations of Reps. William Jefferson (D-La.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), both of whom have denied any wrongdoing.

A third investigation focused on Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) is pending the outcome of an Alexandria, Va., hearing on a drunken-driving charge. A fourth subcommittee formed to investigate Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who was charged with assaulting a United Airlines employee in August and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of trespassing and paid a small fine.

But knowledgeable sources from both parties suggest the excess funds are not the result of an “investigations” budget, but instead the result of a committee that has grown steadily, though slowly, in recent years to 18 staff members.

Then-Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and ranking member Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) successfully sought a more than 50 percent increase in 2005, arguing that additional staff members were needed, in part to improve training on ethics rules.

At the time, however, the committee was stuck in a partisan dispute over organizing, and funds went largely unused in 2005 and 2006, as staff levels remained unchanged despite available funds.

According to House records, the panel spent just $840,000 of its $1.8 million budget in 2005, leaving more than half its funds unused. In 2006, the panel again spent just $1.5 million of a $2.4 million budget, leaving more than 36 percent in House coffers.

But even before that budget increase, the committee still came in significantly under budget each year, leaving 20 percent of its budget untouched in both 2003 and 2004.

According to House records, the panel spent just $1.2 million of its $1.5 million budget in 2003 and spent $1.2 million of its $1.5 million budget in 2004.