New Committee’s Impact Still Uncertain

Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:39pm

Nearly two years after lawmakers added an independent review board to the House’s own ethics process, Congressional observers praise the increased transparency but say more time is needed to evaluate whether the two-tier system is more effective in weeding out rules violations.

In its first year of operations in 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics, tasked with reviewing potential rules violations and recommending investigations to the chamber’s ethics committee, reported opening 25 inquiries.

The OCE ultimately forwarded 20 of those cases to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, recommending 12 for formal investigations and advising no further review of the remaining eight.

“Overall, we’re happy with the increased caseload that the ethics committee has,— said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate at U.S. PIRG.

While Gilbert added that the current investigative workload cannot be definitively attributed to the OCE, increased transparency has begun to address “the big complaint, that it’s been a black hole and we’re not sure work is getting done.—

Government reform advocates, many of whom advised a House task force that drafted the resolution establishing the OCE, point to rules requiring the ethics committee to publicly disclose the names of Members cited in OCE-recommended investigations.

Specifically, when the OCE forwards an inquiry and advises a formal House investigation, the ethics committee has 45 days in which to consider the recommendation. If the panel opts to extend its review an additional 45 days, it may do so, but it must issue a statement announcing that decision and identifying the lawmaker under review. Those statements do not, however, identify the alleged rules violations.

“There is a sense that it is a heavier caseload, and in part that’s due to information that we wouldn’t normally publicly have,— Gilbert said.

Although the House ethics panel files a biennial report on its activities — it is required to do so, along with other House committees at the close of each Congress — the committee is designed to be highly secretive, and the reports offer few specifics.

According to the most recent report in 2009, the ethics panel scrutinized nearly two dozen Members and aides in the 110th Congress.

Among the 19 lawmakers and three House employees it examined over that two-year period, however, the report identified only five, all previously identified as the subjects of formal investigations. The report also offers statistics on the panel’s day-to-day work advising Members and their offices and training House employees on ethics rules.

During the current Congress, the ethics committee has issued statements to date identifying 18 Members whose behavior it has reviewed.

That group includes seven Members cited in separate OCE reviews for a variety of alleged rules violations, including Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and Pete Stark (D-Calif.).

In those cases, the ethics committee opened its own investigations into Waters and Richardson; deferred an investigation involving Jackson in favor of an ongoing Justice Department review; and continues to review the OCE’s recommendations related to Stark, Visclosky and Tiahrt.

Another five lawmakers — Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) — were also the subjects of OCE reviews referred to the ethics committee in late May. The House ethics committee announced its own investigation of those Members in June, however, before the review period ended, and did not reference the OCE referral in its decision, instead citing its own ongoing investigation.

The ethics committee also issued public statements in 2009 announcing its investigation of Rangel’s personal finances and fundraising efforts, which was carried over from the 110th Congress.

The committee announced its determination not to investigate six other lawmakers who were charged with traffic violations or arrested during political protests in 2009.

Under a House rule enacted in 2007, the committee is required to empanel an investigative subcommittee or issue a report detailing its decision not to do so anytime a Member is “indicted or otherwise formally charged with criminal conduct.—

Still, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan asserted that a public list of investigations is of little value if at least a portion of the cases do not result in sanctions.

“The fact remains there’s not a single Member of Congress who’s been disciplined by the ethics committee [in the 111th Congress]. Without that I’m not sure what the difference is,— Sloan said. “It’s just simply not true that no one’s ever done anything to simply not merit so much as a censure.—

The ethics committee has publicly dismissed only one OCE referral to date, after determining it could not find a rules violation in Graves’ case.

At the same time, that investigation and subsequent dismissal exposed significant friction between the investigative bodies, ranging from disagreements over deadlines to the handling of evidence.

But government reform advocates assert that despite the discord between the ethics bodies over that inquiry, the resulting 541-page report offered greater detail than any previous investigation about the ethics process.

The Graves probe is also the only case in which an OCE report, which includes background materials such as staff e-mails, has been released to date. The ethics committee is not required to produce OCE reports in those cases in which it has announced its own investigations until it completes its work, or the end of the 111th Congress, whichever is first.

“I do think that the creation and existence of OCE has made a difference, and that was revealed in the Graves matter,— said Meredith McGehee, the Campaign Legal Center’s policy director. “If you had only seen what the ethics committee wrote, you would never have the same sense or flavor or detail.—

But in the past year, the ethics committee itself has also undergone several significant alternations, including the installment of new leadership in Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.).

After several years in which disunion between the panel’s leaders curtailed the committee’s work — including a partisan deadlock that prevented the panel from organizing for several months in 2006, and icy relations between previous leaders — the committee appears to have rebounded.

In addition to hiring a full complement of staff for the first time since the committee proposed expanding its ranks in 2005, Lofgren and Bonner implemented a midyear status report on their panel.

That document, much like the biennial report, offered a statistical analysis of the panel work — detailing the number of staff trained and financial disclosure reports reviewed — along with its investigative workload, including 15 new inquiries at midyear, but it did not disclose specific information.

Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) served as the major proponent of creating a two-tiered ethics process, she and other Democratic leaders have been largely silent on the outcome of their experiment.

In response to request for comment, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said: “The House has an active, functioning, non-partisan ethics process, in which OCE is a vital participant.—