Outside Groups Chastise Ethics Panel Over OCE Clash

Posted October 2, 2009 at 5:30pm

Government reform advocates chastised the House ethics committee on Friday, asserting in a letter to House leaders that the panel acted inappropriately when it publicly challenged an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation last month.In a letter issued Friday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), several groups — the Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Democracy 21 and U.S. PIRG — questioned the ethics committee’s decision to air its doubts over an investigation of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) before it had finished its own review of the matter.“We believe it was inappropriate for the Ethics Committee to issue a public statement in the middle of an ongoing, nonpublic ethics inquiry that challenged the work done by the OCE,— the letter said, referring to a report on Graves submitted by the OCE to the ethics committee earlier this year.The OCE reviews suspected rules violations and recommends investigations to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel.The OCE reviews allegations in a two-step process before issuing reports to the ethics committee. The ethics panel may review the reports for up to 90 days — an initial 45-day period and an optional 45-day extension — before it must make the report public, unless it opts to open its own investigation in which case the report is not immediately released.The ethics committee voted to extend its review of the Graves report for 45 days in mid-September. In a statement issued at that time, the committee explained its decision by citing potential “exculpatory evidence— — information that could potentially clear Graves of the allegations — which the panel said should have been previously provided to Graves for review.The ethics committee statement also said the OCE’s review did not find a “substantial reason to believe— that Graves had violated House rules or other laws.In a response to the ethics committee that same day, the OCE said the ethics panel “mischaracterized— its report and asserted that the disputed evidence was actually provided by Graves or his attorneys.The exchanges, including a second statement from the ethics committee reiterating its stance, marked an unusually public fight in the typically secretive ethics process.“In taking this action, the Ethics Committee left the public impression that it seemed more concerned about the activities of the OCE than it was about the ethics inquiry involved,— the letter continued. “It is unclear to us why the Committee could not have addressed its concerns through private discussions with the OCE rather than making a public challenge. It is also unclear why the Committee felt compelled to make such a public statement about the work of OCE in the middle of a nonpublic ethics inquiry by the Ethics Committee.—According to the resolution that created the OCE, which was incorporated into House rules in the 111th Congress, the ethics committee is required to issue a “public statement … regarding the Member, office or employee of the House who is the subject— of an OCE referral when it extends its review of the matter. U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert said the letter does not suggest the ethics committee violated House rules but said the announcement was “unnecessary.—While the ethics committee also voted to extend its review of an OCE inquiry involving Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in mid-September, it did not similarly critique the investigation.“We do not want to see the performance of the OCE undermined by inappropriate challenges to their work, nor do we want to see the stage being set for attempting to weaken the powers or the independence of the OCE, when the House adopts new rules at the outset of the next Congress,— the letter concluded.In a statement issued in mid-September, the ethics committee said it would decline to comment further on the Graves investigation but would determine its “course of action— before the end of the 45-day period that began Sept. 15.Both the ethics committee and OCE declined to discuss the Friday letter.In response to the letter, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “Given the staggering number of ethics allegations facing House Democrats, it’s clear we need a functioning ethics process.—Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said, “Both committees are working to address the issues at hand.—Although neither the ethics committee nor the OCE have detailed the allegations involving Graves, the Missouri lawmaker’s office has indicated the inquiry revolves around testimony at a Small Business Committee hearing.In March, Roll Call reported that the Congressman invited his friend and neighbor Brooks Hurst to testify before a Congressional hearing on renewable fuels, without mentioning that his wife and Hurst are investors together in renewable fuels plants in Missouri.Graves is the ranking member on the Small Business Committee, which held the March 4 hearing on “The State of the Renewable Fuels Industry in the Current Economy.—At that hearing, Graves introduced Hurst as a farmer from northwest Missouri and added that Hurst’s family is active in biodiesel and ethanol production. Hurst also said he is an investor in a ethanol plant in Craig, Mo. The only ethanol plant in Craig is the Golden Triangle Energy Cooperative.Graves’ financial disclosure forms indicate that his wife’s investment in Golden Triangle produced $15,001 to $50,000 in income in 2006 and $5,000 to $15,000 in 2007 and 2008. That investment was originally listed on Graves’ disclosure forms as being a joint asset shared with his wife.