Ethics Office Addresses Member Concerns Over Procedures

Posted October 27, 2009 at 12:46pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics sought Tuesday to quell Member concerns over its procedures for initiating investigations of House lawmakers.In its third-quarter report released Tuesday, the OCE included a one-paragraph section titled “a note on anonymous ‘complaints’ and newspaper articles.—The statement is an apparent response to recent media reports in which Members questioned the OCE’s process for selecting and reviewing allegations.“The OCE Board notes that in all cases before deciding to authorize a preliminary review it exercises reasonable due diligence to determine that objectively verifiable facts exist to substantiate an allegation and that the standard of proof set out in its Rules is met, namely, that a ‘reasonable basis’ exists to believe an allegation,— the report states. “Such a determination does not constitute a finding that a violation has actually occurred. The OCE Board has never authorized a review based on an anonymous ‘complaint’ or a newspaper article,— the report continued.Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised concerns about the OCE earlier this year, meeting with OCE staff in June to discuss the fledging office’s policies and procedures. That meeting occurred the same week that the House ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, announced an investigative subcommittee to review five CBC members who accepted privately sponsored travel to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.The OCE had recommended an investigation of those same Members to the ethics panel in May.The ethics committee probe includes Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who faces an unrelated ethics committee inquiry into his personal finances and fundraising, as well as Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands). That probe is examining whether those trips, sponsored by the Carib News Foundation, violated House gift rules. House lawmakers established the OCE in 2008 to review potential ethics violations and recommend investigations to the House ethics committee.Unlike the House ethics committee, the OCE accepts complaints from the general public. The ethics committee restricts formal grievances to Members. Although the OCE is under no obligation to act on those submissions, the panel often responds to complaints with letters, sometimes explaining that a matter does not fall within its jurisdiction or referring the matter to another body, such as the Franking Commission.In its third-quarter report, the OCE also provides statistical information on the OCE’s work to date, including its referral of 11 investigations to the ethics committee, two of which it recommended be dismissed.Among the nine investigations that the OCE has recommended to the House ethics panel for further review, eight have been publicly identified by the ethics committee, including the five Members under review in connection to their Caribbean travels.The OCE report states that one referral has not been publicly acknowledged by the ethics committee but listed a release date of Friday for an OCE-authored report.“Standards Committee has made no public announcements concerning this matter,— the report states. It is not known which Member or what allegations the review concerns.The ethics committee identified three of the remaining four potential investigations in mid-September, focusing on Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.)The committee did not outline the allegations facing Graves, but the Missouri lawmaker indicated the review focuses on allegations over testimony before the Small Business Committee. 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. The committee also did not indicate what allegations it is reviewing involving Waters, but a series of news reports earlier this year questioned the California lawmaker’s role in the decision to provide $12 million in federal bailout funds to OneUnited Bank, where her husband, Sidney Williams, had served on the board and owned stock.According to the OCE, the ethics panel is slated to release the OCE’s report and findings — which could include documents, interviews and other materials gathered during the probe — in those reviews by Friday, unless the committee opts to empanel an investigative subcommittee on either matter, which would delay the report’s release for up to one year.The eighth investigation focused on Jackson’s ties to disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who is accused by federal investigators of choreographing a pay-to-play scheme to auction an open Illinois Senate seat in late 2008.The ethics committee has deferred an inquiry into that matter, citing an ongoing Justice Department investigation. The OCE report states the ethics committee, which has already released the OCE’s report, must issue an announcement if it continues to defer the investigation after a one-year period but does not list a release date for the report.In addition, the OCE report notes that 72 “private citizens— contacted its office in the third quarter, either seeking information about the office or reporting “allegations of misconduct.— The board has received 176 inquiries since the beginning of 2009.The OCE, chaired by ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and co-chaired by ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), is an eight-member board including two alternates and comprised largely of former House lawmakers.