Ethics Panel Leaders Address Concerns Over New Rules

Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:51pm

House ethics committee leaders addressed concerns Thursday that some of their new internal rules could impede investigations by the fledgling Office of Congressional Ethics, asserting the changes will not diminish efforts to increase transparency in the ethics process.Ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) met Thursday with representatives from more than a half-dozen government reform organizations who voiced concerns over the new rules. The OCE, established in March 2008, is charged with reviewing potential rules violations and recommending investigations to the full ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.The rules changes, introduced in early June, are aimed at defining the panel’s interactions with the OCE, which began conducting its own investigations in January.Government reform advocates are concerned some of the new rules could make it easier for the ethics panel to supersede the OCE’s investigations, arguing the rules give the ethics committee greater latitude to make such requests.Under the resolution that created the OCE, the House ethics panel is permitted to trump any ongoing OCE investigation if the House panel is already reviewing the same allegation. But both the OCE and government reform advocates had interpreted the resolution to mean the ethics panel had established an investigative subcommittee.The new rules would allow the ethics committee to request an early referral of an investigation even if had not created a subcommittee — albeit only after the full ethics committee has voted to make such a request. “It didn’t occur to us that the ethics committee would take something from the Office of Congressional Ethics when they were not in the investigative committee phase,— said Sarah Dufendach, vice president of legislative affairs for Common Cause.Dufendach pointed to an ethics committee memorandum placed in the Congressional Record in March 2008 by then-ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) expressing concerns that the resolution — then on the House floor — included such a requirement.“It’s in the resolution exactly as this staff person feared,— Dufendach said.But Ethics Staff Director and Chief Counsel Blake Chisam dismissed the argument raised by the reform advocates.“The concerns you have about the definition of investigation, I don’t share,— he said. “I think these rules do exactly what ought to be done.— Chisam pointed to the requirement for a full committee vote before asking the OCE to turn over an investigation, as well as the applications of deadlines when the ethics panel does trump an investigation. “If we fail to act, the matter would revert to the OCE,— he said. Under the committee’s new rules, the panel would have up to 90 days to issue a report on an investigation it has removed from the OCE’s control. The deadlines are identical to those applied when the OCE completes its process for an investigation.“In reviewing the matter … I don’t think there will be anything less than transparency or accountability,— Lofgren said.“I don’t think the committee would ask for a referral unless it was serious,— she continued, and later added: “There’s no way to bury this the way we’ve written the rules.—During and immediately after the meeting, Lofgren gave examples of incidents in which she felt it would be unnecessary for the OCE to conduct its own investigation, citing two minor incidents the committee was required to review in which members were arrested for protesting and another in which a member received traffic violations in his home state. The committee dismissed both matters without an investigative subcommittee.Lofgren noted that conducting parallel investigations of such matters would “waste— the OCE’s time. Asked whether such determinations should be left to the OCE, Lofgren added: “Well, no.—She said: “There’s finite resources. They have a budget. We have a budget. They have staff. We have staff. Their role is an important one.— Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, emphasized that the meeting was not intended to criticize the current ethics leadership, but an attempt to avoid potential conflicts in the future.”One thing we want to be clear about: We don’t have any beef with the ethics committee,— Mann said. “We don’t see any issue coming up now. … We believe your intentions are absolutely honorable. … Think about what might happen when you’re gone.—Lofgren and Bonner said the matter would be raised during a full committee hearing later this month.“Obviously we want to think about what’s been said here today,— Lofgren said. She also offered a private meeting with reform advocates at a future date. None of those in attendance — including Democracy 21, Brookings Institution, League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Campaign Legal Center, U.S. PIRG or Public Citizen — said they expected the ethics committee would amend its internal rules, but praised the meeting as productive.Nonetheless, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said he also expects the OCE, if a conflict arises, to obey its own rules — and that it could potentially refuse an ethics committee request. “We are all united around the proposition that the OCE correctly reflected the resolution adopted by the House and they need to follow regular order and comply with their own rules,— he said after the meeting.“I hope that we never get to the point where this is a problem,— he added.U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert echoed that sentiment: “We definitely just expect that individual entities will uphold their own rules and live by it.—Lofgren said that should such a conflict arise, “We’ll take a look and make sure their rules comply, our rules comply.—No OCE board members or staff were included in the Thursday meeting.In the meantime, Bonner noted that the ethics committee will soon release a midyear report detailing its work to date. Although the panel typically releases a report at the end of each Congressional term — generally providing statistics about its work — it has not previously released such information midyear.