Conflict Escalates Between House Ethics Bodies

Posted October 30, 2009 at 8:34am

In the 541-page report dismissing an ethics investigation into Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) on Thursday, the House ethics committee dedicated more than two-dozen pages to a scathing critique of the Office of Congressional Ethics.The evaluation, which declared the OCE’s probe of Graves as “fundamentally flawed,— is the latest public eruption of ongoing tensions between the two highly secretive organizations.The OCE defended its investigative practices Thursday, calling the ethics panel’s criticisms a “misunderstanding.—House lawmakers established the OCE in spring 2008 to review suspected rules violations and recommend investigations to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics committee.The report also marks the first public release of an OCE review of a House lawmaker.In its report on Graves, the House ethics committee questioned numerous aspects of the OCE investigation, from its review of House rules to its adherence to deadlines.“While reviewing the materials forwarded to it by OCE, the Standards Committee was deeply disappointed to identify several procedural and substantive deficiencies in OCE’s review, some of which would appear to have been fatal to OCE’s ability to continue its review,— the report states.“Regretfully, the Standards Committee believes that it is necessary for the proper administration of the House ethics process and the due process rights of any current or future subject of an OCE investigation to identify these unfortunate deficiencies in this report,— the report continued. “In doing so, the Standards Committee intends only to identify the issues it identified in the course of its review and does not in, in any way, intend to ascribe to OCE any intent, motive or bad faith with respect to the deficiencies identified below.—But the OCE chairman, ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), and its ranking member, former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), fired back Thursday, asserting the ethics committee “again mischaracterized— its investigation of Graves.“In every matter, including the review concerning Representative Graves, the OCE has followed its rules and the letter and spirit of the Resolution that created the OCE,— according to an OCE statement. “We regret the Standards Committee’s misunderstanding of our rules and our process.—The two ethics bodies had sparred in mid-September over the Graves matter on issues involving evidence.Among its criticisms, the House ethics committee questioned the OCE’s application of “incorrect rules— in its review of Graves, who it had probed after he invited his wife’s business partner and friend to testify before the Small Business Committee in March.“The Standards Committee concluded that none of the House rules or standards of conduct identified by OCE applied to Representative Graves’ conduct,— the report states.The ethics committee ultimately reviewed Graves’ actions under an alternate set of House rules and federal statutes before determining “the March 4 hearings did not violate any applicable House rule or standard of conduct.—OCE Staff Director and Chief Counsel Leo Wise defended the office’s investigation, noting that the OCE lacks the ability to charge Members with sanctions, and only identifies potential rules violations.“We review allegations. The committee makes final legal determinations. We’re a fact-gathering body,— Wise said. “We didn’t misanalyze the rules.—In its report, the ethics committee also noted its decision to review the OCE’s referral for the maximum 90-day period, in part to provide Graves with a copy of a two-part report, which includes a “findings— section that includes documents gathered during the investigation, such as e-mails.“OCE’s Report and Finding relating to Representative Graves consisted of approximately 169 pages,— the ethics committee report states. “Only one page of the 169 pages is the ‘report.’… OCE only provided Representative Graves with the one-page report, but did not provide him with the Finds or any other documents.—A copy of the OCE report issued by the ethics committee includes the report, a one-page document that outlines the allegations against Graves and recommends a further review.In a response filed with the ethics committee, Graves “presented facts that were not included in OCE’s Findings, raised procedural concerns with OCE’s review, and took issue with certain of OCE’s factual and legal conclusions,— the report states.But Wise defended the one-page report, stating: “The resolution specifically directs the only things the report is supposed to contain.— Wise noted that the report is required to include a brief summary of the allegation, a recommendation for further review or dismissal and a vote count. “You literally can rattle them off on one hand.—He also questioned the committee’s decision to subsequently provide Graves the full investigation, noting that the resolution that created the OCE dictates that the subject of an investigation is required to receive a copy of the probe “as least one calendar day— before it is released to the public.“It compromises [the ethics committee’s] ability to do any additional investigation, because at that point the subject has information they haven’t had before,— Wise said. “You’ve compromised their memory and you’ve compromised what they knew at the time. … Any witness that sees it is similarly compromised.—The ethics committee also asserted the OCE failed to meet periodic deadlines in its investigations and noted the office interviewed one witness nearly two weeks after an investigation was scheduled to end.“OCE’s unfortunate disregard for the deadlines mandated by its authorizing resolution raises the question of whether OCE was required, under the OCE Rule requiring OCE to disclosure exculpatory materials to the subject members … to disclose to Representative Graves that OCE missed strict deadlines and conducted portions of its investigation outside of the time permitted,— a footnote in the report states.Wise acknowledged that the committee did interview Brooks Hurst, an investor with Grave’s wife in a Missouri-based ethanol plant, after the investigation’s deadline had lapsed. He added that the OCE had sought Hurst for an interview before the deadline and agreed to the later interview at Brook’s request.Wise said the OCE otherwise met its deadlines, stating the ethics committee misconstrued the committee’s rules.The House ethics committee is composed of 10 current Members; the OCE is a quasi-independent body — its eight board members are jointly appointed to limited terms by the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House — composed of former House lawmakers, as well as a former House officer and Federal Election Commission aide.