Ethics Office Didn’t Forward Lawmakers’ Documents to DOJ

Posted May 28, 2010 at 5:40pm

No documents provided by House Members or their offices were among the evidence that the Office of Congressional Ethics forwarded to the Justice Department this week from its probe into lawmakers’ ties to the now-defunct PMA Group lobbying firm, a knowledgeable source confirmed Friday.

The OCE announced Thursday that it would to share “certain evidence” from its investigation with the Justice Department, citing questions over whether campaign donations were used in an attempt to influence the appropriations process.

That evidence was culled from about 200,000 pages of documents that the OCE collected during its probe of seven Members and their ties to the lobbying firm in 2009.

Public reports on the probe issued in February stated that the OCE received files from more than three dozen PMA clients’ and lawmakers’ offices.

But a source familiar with the documents said the DOJ did not receive any items provided by Members or their offices.

“The evidence pertains to a factual finding by the OCE Board that certain persons and companies saw their campaign donations as affecting decisions about earmarks,” the OCE, chaired by ex-Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), said in a press release Thursday.

The OCE, which reviews potential rules violations and refers investigations to the ethics committee, recommended in late 2009 dismissal of five of its PMA cases and further review of two.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, reviewed the OCE’s probe 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.

But in the wake of the OCE’s decision to share evidence from its PMA probe, defense attorneys who have represented clients in OCE investigations questioned the decision.

“The OCE clearly has the authority to refer matters to the Justice Department. But it must do so judiciously,” said attorney Elliot Berke, who represented Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) in an unrelated OCE investigation, which the ethics committee ultimately dismissed. “Now that it has actually set this precedent, it may have a chilling effect on parties who otherwise would have cooperated with the office.”

“Remember, the OCE does not have the ability to compel testimony,” Berke added. Unlike the ethics committee, the OCE does not have subpoena power and receives all interviews and documents on a voluntary basis.

“Parties may decide not to cooperate with the OCE for fear that anything they tell the office could be used by the Justice Department down the road. In the end, it may be a balancing act,” he said.

But white-collar attorney Stan Brand, a former House general counsel, said Thursday that he believed the OCE made an “institutional mistake” forwarding the information outside the House.

“It raises a host of questions,” said Brand, who asserted the information should have been shared only with the ethics committee. “To me, it’s one more example of how they have mistaken their mission and acted contrary to what I think is the structure that was set up for them.”

That decision marks the first time that the OCE has formally shared evidence with federal investigators — although the Justice Department and the ethics committee have an existing relationship — each has at times forwarded information to the other at the end of its own review.

In its decision to forward the documents to federal investigators, however, the OCE noted that the ethics committee had “apparently completed its review of the evidence.”

The FBI this week released documents related to the late Rep. John Murtha, who was one of the Members close to PMA, which was investigated by the OCE. The FBI said some documents related to the Pennsylvania Democrat were being withheld because an investigation is still ongoing and the documents that were released related to earmarks that Murtha had obtained.