Ethics Office Gets a Taste of Mass Complaints

Posted May 19, 2009 at 6:08pm

In what is likely the first mass-mail appeal to the Office of Congressional Ethics to open an investigation, a conservative blog and its readership began distributing a form letter last week requesting a probe of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The site, which bills itself as dedicated to “Politics and Global Warming Nonsense,— calls for an investigation of Pelosi and when she first learned about harsh CIA interrogation techniques.

“I, (your name here), residing at ___, phone # ___, e-mail ____, would like to open an Ethics violation case against the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi,— states the letter, originally posted May 15 on GiovanniWorld.Wordpress.com.

The blog also lists contact information for the OCE and one of its investigators, as well as links to a variety of House documents, including the House Ethics Manual.

An e-mail sent to a contact address for the Web site was not immediately answered Tuesday afternoon.

OCE Staff Director and Chief Counsel Leo Wise declined Tuesday to confirm whether the office has received any of the form letters to date, stating that the office does not discuss specific complaints.

But Wise said that if the office were to receive an influx of identical complaints on any subject, it would likely treat those inquiries no differently than it does individual letters.

“We’re going to handle it like we handle all citizens’ submissions,— Wise said. “We take it seriously. We look at the facts. We do our due diligence.—

Under the OCE’s rules, the office first reviews all submissions to determine whether the office has jurisdiction over a matter. To qualify, the subject of a complaint must be a current Member, officer or employee of the House, and the allegations, if true, would constitute a violation of House rules or other laws.

In addition, House rules limit the OCE to reviewing only those events that occurred after March 2008, when the office was established.

When a complaint fails to meet those criteria, the OCE notifies the submission’s author, but it is not required to report that decision to the House ethics panel, nor are the letters made publicly available.

Responding to such “post-card campaigns— — any instance in which numerous individuals submit identical letters, or even preprinted postcards — could tax the committee’s relatively small staff, as well as increase postage costs.

In its first quarterly report, covering January to March, the OCE recorded 37 contacts with “private citizens— who were either seeking information about the group’s procedures or alleging misconduct by Members, staff or House employees.

But Wise said a deluge of identical complaints should not hinder the OCE’s operations.

“Our intention is to address things individually,— Wise said. “We’ve always taken the approach that we are going to staff appropriately for the demand. I’ve always kind of expected there would be an increase in submissions over time and we would reach some sort of steady state where it plateaued.—

Unlike the House ethics committee, which restricts the filing of formal complaints to Members, the semiautonomous OCE accepts recommendations from the general public.

While any individual or organization can submit a complaint to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the panel is formally known, it is not required to address or even acknowledge those complaints.

One former House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the ethics committee is rarely, if ever, a target of such mass mail campaigns.

The OCE and the House panel are also permitted to initiate inquiries of their own volition.

The OCE is tasked with reviewing and recommending potential rules violations to the House ethics committee.