Skaggs Says New Job Won’t Hinder Ethics Role

Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:11pm

The bold print on ex-Rep. David Skaggs’ bio reads “Senior Strategic Advisor and Independent Consultant,— his new post at the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge. But the Colorado Democrat’s other job — the one that gets attention on Capitol Hill — is still there, too, on the right, under the “Civic Activities— label: “U.S. House of Representatives Office of Congressional Ethics, Chair.—

When Skaggs joined McKenna Long, which the firm publicly announced Tuesday, he also became the first OCE board member to switch careers in the midst of his four-year term. He acknowledged the decision raised new questions within the fledgling ethics office.

A quasi-autonomous organization tasked with reviewing potential rules violations and recommending investigations to the House ethics committee, the OCE’s eight-member board is designed as a part-time organization, whose members hold day jobs outside of Congress.

Unlike the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly referred to as the House ethics committee, the OCE’s board does not include sitting lawmakers.

Instead, the House resolution that created the OCE, and has since been incorporated into the chamber’s internal rules, indicates the office’s board members should be individuals “who are specifically qualified to serve on the board by virtue of their education, training or experience in … the following fields: legislative, judicial, regulatory, professional, ethics business, legal and academic.—

The current board — jointly appointed by the Speaker and the Minority Leader — includes six former Members as well as a former House Chief Administrative Officer and former Federal Election Commission aide.

In an interview Thursday, Skaggs, who had previously served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, acknowledged that negotiations for his new job included numerous discussions over how to handle potential conflicts between the posts.

Skaggs said he addressed the issue with McKenna Long as well as his fellow board members and chief counsel.

“The House was very explicit about those things that Members of the OCE board could not do,— Skaggs said, referring to prohibitions included in the resolution creating the OCE. “We can’t be regular government employees and we can’t be lobbyists.—

In addition to those bans, OCE board members are barred from registering as a foreign agent. Restrictions also prohibit a board member from seeking a Congressional seat for three years after their OCE term ends.

“I think by implication the other spectrum of possible professional involvements was contemplated … and we just need to be really careful that, in that large area that isn’t proscribed, that we do it very much in accordance with very strict limits on [what] my involvement will be, what I know, in relationship to matters that MLA is involved with,— Skaggs added.

According to a promotional e-mail issued by the public relations firm Casey & Sayre on behalf of McKenna Long — which touted Skaggs’s OCE post as well as his new job — the Coloradan will advise clients on “administrative law, government contracts, and corporate ethics.— The release added — and Skaggs himself emphasized — that he expects to focus on higher education issues. He noted the position is not a full-time post.

“We have put in place firewalls, to use the legal firm term of art, for making sure that nothing I’m doing at OCE is known to the firm — other than that I’m there — and nothing that the firm may be doing that might involve clients that are involved with OCE matters will be known to me,— said Skaggs, who will be based in the firm’s Denver office.

Skaggs, along with his fellow OCE board members, is governed by the OCE’s internal code of conduct, which bars board members from participating in an investigation in which they may have a financial interest.

Those rules also require board members to recuse themselves from investigations where “personal or professional affiliations with a subject or other person involved in a matter— may hinder impartiality. Four board members may also vote to recuse another member for lack of impartiality.

“I think I’m going to be overly cautious and recuse myself from the get-go, whenever the circumstances present that something that OCE is or may be looking into involves somebody in which MLA is providing legal counsel,— Skaggs said.

Although the OCE does not discuss its ongoing work, Skaggs acknowledged that the board has previously reviewed potential conflicts among board members.

Staff Director and Chief Counsel Leo Wise noted that because the OCE is designed as a “part-time— board — its members are located across the country and hold a variety of positions — conflicts of interest are expected to occur.

“We have the standing alternates, who by practice … operate like alternate jurors. They participate in all the deliberations on the theory that at any time a potential conflict or recusal scenario could arise, so they’re ready and briefed and participating in discussions,— Wise said, referring to the board’s six members and two alternate members.

But Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, one of the government reform advocates who advised the House task force that created the OCE, questioned Skaggs’ decision to sign up with a firm with a significant lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, even if he is not directly involved in the lobbying practice.

“By joining a firm that reaches so deep within Congressional ties, it’s worrisome because how often, first of all, is he going to have to recuse himself, and secondly are there going to be ties that aren’t going to be so obvious to the general public going through such a big lobbying firm as this?— Holman asked.

Aside from those restrictions specified in the House resolution establishing the OCE, the Speaker and Minority Leader — who jointly appoint, and may also jointly remove, an OCE board member — do not have authority over the board’s outside employment.

Spokesmen for both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined comment for this article.