Ethics Office Set to Go Public on Inquiry

Posted October 27, 2009 at 6:31pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics indicated Tuesday that its first public release of its investigative reports into allegations involving House Members could occur as early as this week.

The OCE reviews suspected rules violations and recommends investigations to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the House ethics committee.

The ethics committee revealed last month that it had received three referrals from the OCE to review allegations involving Members and voted Sept. 15 to extend its review of at least two of those recommendations for an additional 45-day period.

After that review period expires, the House ethics committee is required to either release the OCE’s report — including a “findings— section that could include documents and indicate what House rules or federal laws a Member is suspected of violating — unless it opts to open its own investigative subcommittee or defer the matter to another law enforcement authority, which would delay the release.

Should the OCE reports become public, it would mark the first release of such materials since the House voted to establish the semiautonomous office in spring 2008 in an effort to increase transparency.

Government reform advocates praised the expected release of those documents.

“Friday is the first benchmark of the new transparency that was promised in the creation of the OCE on the heels of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s commitment to ‘the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.’ We look forward to this milestone in the OCE’s brief history,— said a statement issued Tuesday by U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, Common Cause, Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters and Democracy 21.

The House ethics committee does not typically comment on its investigations, but in statements released in mid-September, the panel acknowledged it was reviewing the OCE’s referral on matters involving Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The announcement also spurred an unusual public spat between the two typically secretive organizations, when the ethics committee appeared to openly question the OCE’s decision to recommend an investigation of Graves.

In a series of public statements, the two panels tangled over whether Graves had been denied a chance to review evidence against him, with the ethics committee asserting he had not, while the OCE said Graves had actually provided the materials in dispute.

The ethics committee did not detail the inquiry into Graves, but the Missouri lawmaker indicated in September that the review focuses on allegations involving 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 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.

The ethics committee also acknowledged in September that it had received an OCE referral of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., but the panel announced it would defer any investigation, citing an ongoing Justice Department investigation.

The OCE inquiry had focused in part 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.

According to a quarterly report issued Tuesday by the OCE, the office has also recommended a fourth investigation to the ethics panel, which has not publicly acknowledged that review or the subject.

“Standards Committee has made no public announcements concerning this matter,— the report states.

The ethics committee’s internal rules state that the panel is not required to publicly announce its additional 45-day review of an OCE referral if the ethics office recommended the matter be dismissed or reported it to the ethics panel as “unresolved— because of a tie vote.

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 made up largely of former House Members.