Ethics Case Disclosures Still Distant

Posted May 5, 2009 at 6:25pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics could wrap up a half-dozen investigations as early as next week, but public disclosure of those probes is unlikely to occur until mid-July at the earliest.

According to its first quarterly report, the OCE is conducting as many as six investigations that will ultimately be passed on to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct along with recommendations that the inquiries either be dismissed or investigated further.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), has acknowledged that he is the subject of a preliminary OCE probe initiated in late March. However, because of the way the OCE process is structured, it is unclear if that investigation is ongoing.

The OCE investigates allegations in a two-stage process. The first step includes a preliminary review that lasts 30 calendar days and may be followed by a second-phase review of up to 59 days.

The six investigations nearing completion — all approved for second-phase review in late March or early April — are scheduled to end as early as May 10, although each is eligible for a two-week extension that would push their completion to late May.

Once those probes are completed, the OCE’s board must vote “as soon as practicable— on its recommendation to the ethics committee, along with reports on the allegations.

But those reports, and any recommendations issued by the OCE’s board — chaired by ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and co-chaired by ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) — remain confidential for another 45 calendar days once they reach the House ethics committee.

That timeline translates to a public release date of no earlier than mid-July for the half-dozen investigations now under way, but could be even longer if the House ethics panel opts to delay publicizing the reports for an additional 45 days, which it is allowed to do.

Although the House ethics panel is required to issue a public statement if it utilizes the 45-day delay, the committee has not issued rules specifying what information it would include in such a statement, such as the names of Member or House aides or employees under review.

And the reports could remain confidential for a longer period, if the House ethics panel opts to form an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations. In such a scenario, the report could be withheld for up to a one-year period, although the ethics committee must announce the creation of a subcommittee along with the name of the accused and the nature of the violation.

In addition, in some instances, the reports could remain permanently confidential. In the event the OCE recommends the investigation be dismissed, and the ethics committee reaches the same conclusion, the reports will not be publicly released.

In Jackson’s case, the OCE is examining the Illinois lawmaker’s ties to disgraced ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who is accused by federal investigators of choreographing a pay-to-play scheme to auction an open Illinois Senate seat late last year.

Under the OCE’s internal rules, that investigation would have begun one week after the board authorized the query. According to the OCE’s quarterly report, four preliminary reviews were approved on March 27, with commencement dates of April 3.

That timeline means the preliminary investigation into Jackson expired May 2, but it is not clear whether the OCE has dropped the matter or opted to continue its probe by opening a second-phase review.

The ethics office does not disclose its ongoing investigations.

Neither Jackson’s office nor Chicago-based attorney James Montgomery returned telephone messages or e-mails left over the course of several days. Jackson’s campaign has reported $115,000 in payments to Montgomery since mid-December.

But in an interview on Saturday with Chicago CBS affiliate CBS 2, Jackson, who has denied any wrongdoing, told the station he was still offering information on contacts between his staff and Blagojevich.

“This one fundamental fact will remain throughout whatever processes [take place]. … I think in the final analysis, I will be absolved,— Jackson said, according to CBS 2.

Under OCE’s rules, the office notifies both the subject of a probe as well as the House ethics committee whenever it opts to open a new inquiry, continues to the second-phase of an investigation, or curtails an investigation.

The OCE investigation into Jackson is one of 10 preliminary reviews it had approved as of early April, according to its quarterly report.