Editorial: Two Minds

OCE's PMA Document Release Could Hinder Future Investigations

Posted May 25, 2010 at 3:18pm

We confess that we are of two minds about the potential release of 250,000 pages of raw data collected as part of the Office of Congressional Ethics’ probe of the PMA lobbying scandal.

As journalists, we are interested in learning and reporting all we can about connections between the tens of millions of dollars in earmarks secured for clients of the defunct lobbying firms, chiefly by members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, and the millions in campaign contributions donated by those clients.

At the same time, we are concerned that the OCE will compromise its ability to conduct investigations in the future — and perhaps even its existence — which would be a severe blow to ethics policing in the House.

The independent, seven-member OCE was created in 2008 to receive and sift ethics complaints against Members and staff and refer them to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for either dismissal or disciplinary action.

The OCE exists because House and outside reformers were convinced that the ethics committee was incapable or unwilling to police the House. It was a controversial step, and OCE has many enemies in the House, including the ethics committee itself.

The Office of Congressional Ethics clearly conducted an exhaustive investigation of seven Members connected to the PMA Group — though, by statute it was allowed to cover only acts engaged in after its creation.

In December, it delivered 30- to 40-page reports to the ethics committee, clearing five of the Members but referring two for further investigation.

On Feb. 26, the ethics panel cleared all seven, claiming it had been probing PMA on its own, had reviewed OCE’s 250,000 pages of documents and had conducted extensive interviews.

However, when Roll Call called numerous likely witnesses in any serious probe of PMA, it could find hardly any that had been contacted by ethics committee staff — raising questions about the seriousness of the probe.

That led Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), later joined by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), to ask for the entire OCE file. They said they wanted to get to the bottom of an assertion in ethics’s five-page report that “there is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provide enhanced access to Members or a greater chance of obtaining earmarks.”

We concur with Flake and Hodes that the ethics committee ought to be making recommendations on how that perception can be erased — which the committee has refused to do.

And we certainly are curious about the details of what OCE learned.

On the other hand, by statute OCE lacks subpoena power. It relies on voluntary cooperation from witnesses. We worry that cooperation will cease if potential witnesses fear their testimony will be exposed.

What’s more, OCE’s enemies would love to find cause to eliminate it when new House rules are adopted next January. We hope that the panel is not playing into their hands.