Ethics Office Won’t Get Harman Case

Posted April 21, 2009 at 6:37pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics is unlikely to initiate a probe into allegations that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) participated in a quid pro quo with an Israeli agent because of a strict statute of limitations established by House lawmakers.

Leo Wise, OCE staff director and chief counsel, said Tuesday the office does not discuss specific complaints.

But a reading of the OCE’s rules indicates the fledgling office is all but certain not to pursue an investigation of the matter.

Under a House resolution establishing the office in mid-March 2008, the OCE is tasked with reviewing and referring potential rules violations to the full House ethics committee.

That same measure also limits the office’s ability to examine incidents that occurred prior to its creation.

According to the OCE’s published rules, the office uses a three-pronged test to determine whether it has authority to probe a particular complaint.

In addition to requirements that the subject of a complaint be a current Member, officer or employee of the House, and that the allegations, if true, would constitute a violation of House rules or other laws, the incident must also have occurred “on or after March 11, 2008.—

Some exceptions could exist to that enactment date for continuing violations — for example, a case in which a Member received a sweetheart mortgage rate prior to March 2008, but continues to benefit from the deal, could fall under the office’s jurisdiction.

“If the conduct began before the date but continued to the present, we might have jurisdiction over that conduct,— Wise said.

Still, those requirements would appear to prohibit a probe of allegations, first reported by Congressional Quarterly, that Harman in 2005 agreed to help quash a federal espionage case against two officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in return for help lobbying Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to give Harman the House Intelligence Committee chairmanship.

The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint Monday with the OCE, demanding a probe of Harman.

Wise explained that any complaint received by the OCE — which, unlike the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, accepts inquiries from a variety of sources, including the public, and not solely Members — is reviewed under the office’s established procedures.

“Under our rules, the first thing that happens is we review the information to determine if the office has jurisdiction,— Wise said.

According to the OCE’s internal rules, there is no official timeline for that process.

“If the Staff finds that the information sufficiently alleges a violation within the jurisdiction of the Board, it may spend a reasonable amount of time gathering additional information with the authorization of the Chairman and Co-Chairman,— the rules state.

During that period, staff members may review public information. According to OCE rules, staff will notify a lawmaker or other subject of an allegation only if the jurisdictional review requires “information from sources other than public ones, including from potential witnesses.—

Should the OCE determine a complaint does not fall within its jurisdiction, the organization notifies the submission’s author, but it is not required to report that decision to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, nor are the letters made publicly available.

CREW spokeswoman Naomi Seligman said the group had not received a response to its request as of Tuesday afternoon.

Seligman added that the organization was aware its complaint would be unlikely to succeed within the OCE but viewed the submission as a path to the House ethics panel.

“We just thought because of the grave nature of the complaint and because the ethics committee doesn’t accept complaints from outside groups, our hope was that they would forward it to the ethics committee, even with the time restrictions,— Seligman said.

“The ethics committee takes complaints from the OCE but not from us, so we thought they could pass it on.—

When the OCE determines it does have jurisdiction over a complaint, it investigates allegations in a two-stage process. The first step includes a preliminary review that lasts 30 days and may be followed by a second-phase review of up to 59 days.

At the end of the second review, the OCE must recommend to the full ethics committee whether it should initiate its own investigation or dismiss the matter.