Stark Case Stokes Tensions Between Ethics Bodies

Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:28am

The Office of Congressional Ethics on Thursday offered a terse rebuke of criticisms leveled by the House ethics committee over its investigation of Rep. Pete Stark (D) — and critiqued the ethics panel’s own review of the California lawmaker as faulty — the latest indication of strained relations between the two panels.

“The OCE Board understands its mission under the Resolution is to assist the House in upholding high standards of ethical conduct for Members and staff,” the OCE’s board, led by chairman and ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and co-chairman and ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), wrote in a four-page statement.

“In order for the OCE to fulfill its mission, the House and the public expect clarity and transparency,” the statement continued. “In that collegial spirit, and after reading the [ethics committee] report, the OCE Board wishes to offer corrections to the public record in several important instances where the [ethics committee’s] analysis of the OCE investigation and the Board’s decision in the present matter are inaccurate.”

In its Jan. 28 report, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics committee, characterized the OCE’s investigation of Stark as “inadequate” and asserted the inquiry subjected “Stark to unfounded criminal allegations.”

The OCE, which reviews potential violations and recommends investigations to the ethics panel, reviewed whether Stark had improperly sought a tax break on his Maryland home intended for permanent residents of the state.

In its subsequent review of the OCE’s recommendation, the House ethics panel declared that Stark’s actions — including at one point indicating on a form he was registered to vote in Maryland, which was later corrected by a state official — did not violate any House rules, federal regulations or state laws because he did not receive the tax break in the period under review.

In the Thursday statement, the OCE board defended the office’s investigative practices but also criticized the ethics committee’s own review, asserting the House panel “did not address the central factual issue” in the Stark investigation.

The statement notes that the OCE’s investigation focused on what information Stark provided to Maryland tax authorities about his eligibility for the property tax credit.

“The central question in the OCE review was: What did Representative Stark submit to Maryland authorities regarding eligibility for the homestead tax credit, both before and after news accounts questioned credits claimed by Members of Congress?” the Thursday statement reads.

In its investigation, OCE investigators highlighted that when Stark submitted his homestead tax eligibility application form online — which asks residents five questions, including whether the property is their principal residence, as well as the address used for their income tax returns, voter registration and driver’s license — state records indicate he said he was registered to vote at the Maryland address.

The OCE review found that Maryland records show Stark subsequently contacted the tax office in March 2009 to amend his survey to show that he is not registered to vote at that address shortly after news reports disclosed Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) had received the Maryland homestead tax break.

According to the OCE’s review, Stark denied contacting the tax office in an interview with OCE investigators.

The ethics committee dismissed the discrepancy as unremarkable, however, stating in its report: “The record demonstrates that Representative Stark provided overall truthful answers, and, at most, made an inadvertent mistake regarding his voter registration response, which was soon corrected.”

But the OCE on Thursday slammed the ethics committee’s determination to focus instead on whether Stark actually received the tax benefit after he submitted the application, asserting that he may have violated the state’s law even if he did not ultimately benefit form his alleged application.

“[U]nder Maryland law it is a misdemeanor to ‘willfully’ provide a ‘false answer to a property interrogatory’ regardless of whether an applicant actually receives the credit,” the OCE statement reads.

The OCE statement also denied inferences by the House ethics panel that it handled Stark’s review differently — such as omitting an evaluation suggesting portions of the Maryland tax application were vague — than three other Members it reviewed based on similar allegations, stating that Stark was the only lawmaker in the group to actively apply for the tax credit.

The OCE’s board also addressed “the respective roles and responsibilities” of the two ethics bodies in its statement, emphasizing its autonomy in selecting reviews and referring matters to the House panel.

“The OCE Board fully respects the responsibility of the [ethics committee] to decide the merits of matters referred to it by the OCE,” the statement reads. “At the same time … the House of Representatives established the OCE as an independent office and gave its Board exclusive authority to decide when to refer a matter to the [ethics committee] for further review or dismissal.”

In a footnote, the OCE emphasized its right to release its investigative reports, a point of contention between the two ethics bodies.

“The [ethics committee] asserts that its report, which includes the OCE Board’s Report and Findings as an appendix, is the only ‘authorized’ version of the OCE Board’s Report and Findings,” the statement reads. “However, the only ‘official’ version of any report and findings of the OCE Board is the one produced by the Board of the OCE.”

The statement also addressed an ongoing dispute between the two ethics bodies over whether the OCE’s adheres to deadlines mandated by its investigative process.

Although a House resolution establishing the OCE prescribes an investigative process limited to about three months, the OCE’s board insists that period covers only the active investigation and does not include writing its report or a final vote on whether to recommend further review or dismissal.

“Gathering information in many instances is a time-consuming process and the time allowed for OCE reviews is very short,” the statement reads. “In many instances, Members and third parties provide information to the OCE near the end of the second-phase review. Requiring a premature vote on a referral would result in a less complete and accurate factual record.”