Flake Asks OCE for PMA Files

Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:06pm

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday he will ask the Office of Congressional Ethics to disclose more than 200,000 documents from its investigation of the PMA Group, a day after the House ethics committee publicly rebuked his efforts to expose the details of its probe into the now-defunct lobbying firm.

The ethics committee announced Monday it would not act on any of four Flake resolutions referred to it by the House, which called on the panel to report how many people it interviewed, how many subpoenas it issued and how many documents it reviewed in the PMA probe.

“I asked the Ethics Committee to provide basic details about their PMA investigation in the hope that more information would give House Members and the public more confidence in the Committee’s work,” Flake said in a statement.

Together with Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Flake is now seeking the release of documents gathered in the OCE’s investigation of seven Members and their ties to PMA.

The OCE, an independent House office, recommended the ethics committee investigate two lawmakers and dismiss the other five inquiries.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally named, reviewed those referrals and issued a report in February declaring that no Member of the House and no House staffer had acted inappropriately in providing earmarks to companies that had hired PMA to lobby on their behalf.

Although the ethics committee is not required to release the OCE’s reports when it recommends a matter be dismissed, the ethics panel published all seven reports in late February.

Neither the ethics committee nor the OCE, which publishes the referrals on its own website, released the 200,000 pages Flake and Hodes are now seeking, however.

“They have 200,000 pages of documents from their investigation,” Flake said in an interview Tuesday. “None of this information is confidential, none of it was obtained with promises of confidentiality. I think it will help the Members decide how we go forward.”

Unlike the ethics committee, the OCE does not have subpoena power, meaning any documents it collects are submitted on a voluntary basis.

It is unclear whether the OCE will release the documents.

“We haven’t yet received their request. When it comes in, the board will likely take it up at their next meeting,” spokesman Jon Steinman said.

In March, the OCE’s eight-member board, led by ex-Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), voted to publish its investigation of ex-Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), who resigned from the House to run for governor.

At that time, the OCE board cited the House resolution establishing the office, which says the board can vote to release “any communication to any person or entity … as necessary to conduct official business or pursuant to its rules.” It could potentially use the same rule to release the PMA documents.

Flake, who said he would release the documents to the public, said he anticipates the OCE would agree to the request.

“My guess is that they’re there as a creature of the House, to help the House with these kinds of questions,” Flake said. “I would expect them to make the documents public if they feel that would help. They were probably waiting for the ethics committee to do so.”

An ethics committee aide referred request for comment to the statement issued Monday night by Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.).

In that statement, Lofgren and Bonner asserted that disclosing details of the PMA probe could have a chilling effect on future inquiries and could potentially interfere with ongoing criminal investigations. The Justice Department is also investigating PMA, which closed its doors after an FBI raid in November 2008.

“As in other investigations, although the Committee has discussed in general terms the scope of its investigation, it did not address more specific details of various investigative steps taken by the Committee. To do so would compromise the investigative capabilities of the Committee in this and future matters by chilling voluntary cooperation,” the committee statement said. “Requiring the disclosure of the details of any investigative body’s activities would damage its ability to conduct its activities.”

The ethics statement also offered a litany of statistics about its investigation. Roll Call reported in March that it was not clear that the ethics committee actually interviewed any Members or contacted any of the companies involved.

Lofgren and Bonner also indicated the ethics panel would not issue further guidance on the appropriations process, particularly in regard to earmarks.

“In addition, we note that policy decisions — whether about the current appropriations process, including earmarks, or about the campaign finance system — are not within the jurisdiction of the Committee. Whether these policies should be changed is a subject that should be taken up in the appropriate venue,” the ethics statement said.

Flake has called for the committee to issue such guidelines, citing the committee’s PMA report, which found a “widespread perception” among lobbyists that campaign contributions increased access to Members and influence over earmarks.

“We’re moving into a new appropriations season and instead of clarifying the issue, they’ve just muddied the waters,” Flake said. “To say we are not offering any new guidance as to how Members should approach this just blows me away.”