New Bill Would Weaken Office of Congressional Ethics

Posted June 2, 2010 at 7:00am

The House ethics committee could gain unilateral power to bury investigative reports authored by the Office of Congressional Ethics, under a resolution Rep. Marcia Fudge introduced Friday.

The measure, which would amend House rules, would also set new restrictions on when the OCE could open an investigation and require new standards for referring matters to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel.

The Ohio Democrat did not comment on her proposal on the House floor Friday, but in a statement issued to Roll Call on Monday, she criticized the OCE’s structure.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics was created to provide more transparency in the House of Representatives. It was a commendable goal,” Fudge said. “We must now perfect its processes to ensure that those aims are achieved in a manner consistent with America’s spirit of justice. The processes must be fair to all people involved.

“For instance, OCE is currently the accuser, judge, and jury,” Fudge continued. “This isn’t the case in the American justice system, and it shouldn’t be so in Congress. This proposal brings Congress in line with America’s judicial system by creating a process truly free of politics, avoiding trials in the court of public opinion, and stopping the premature release of reports.”

House lawmakers established the OCE in 2008 in an attempt to increase transparency in the chamber’s ethics process and tasked the office with reviewing suspected rules violations and referring investigations to the ethics committee. The OCE does not, however, sanction Members or recommend punishments.

The full text of the legislation was not immediately available Monday, but a summary provided by Fudge’s office indicated the measure would give greater discretion to the ethics committee to veto an investigation and new power to shelve OCE reports.

Under existing rules, when the OCE refers an investigation to the ethics committee for further review, that report must eventually be released to the public, even if the ethics committee opts to dismiss the case. The Ohio lawmaker’s proposal would instead allow the ethics committee to first determine whether an OCE recommendation is “frivolous or unfounded,” and if so, dismiss the case outright. At the same time, it would require the OCE to seal its records.

In addition, Fudge’s proposal would apply new limitations to the OCE’s ability to open investigations and would issue new guidelines for referring matters to the ethics panel. In particular, the measure would bar OCE from opening a preliminary investigation unless it first received a “sworn complaint from a citizen asserting personal knowledge of an alleged violation.” Currently, the OCE is not prohibited from drawing its inquiries from any sources, including anonymous tips, newspaper articles or more formal complaints.

The measure would also direct the OCE to “clearly define the standard of proof” required for each stage of its investigative process, including referrals to the ethics committee.

House Members who have drawn the OCE’s scrutiny have been highly critical of its investigators since its first report was published in late 2009, although Fudge’s measure marks the first public effort to restrict the office’s abilities.

Fudge herself has not been the subject of an OCE inquiry, although a number of the bill’s 19 co-sponsors, all of whom are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have faced investigations. The CBC has similarly raised questions over the OCE’s process and last year met with the OCE’s staff.

Those lawmakers include Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who were investigated for accepting privately sponsored Caribbean travel. The ethics committee ruled in February that those trips violated House rules because of corporate payments, although it exonerated the Members of intentional wrongdoing. The ethics committee report also named Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), another co-sponsor of the Fudge bill, although she was not a target of the OCE probe.

In addition, Fudge’s chief of staff, Dawn Kelly Mobley, was admonished by the ethics committee for her role in approving those trips in 2007 as the then-counsel to then-ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), Fudge’s predecessor in Congress.

In that investigation, the ethics committee found that Mobley colluded with a private foundation to circumvent House travel restriction.

In addition, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), another co-sponsor of the bill, faced inquiries from the OCE in 2009 for his role in obtaining an earmark for a Georgia program that later hired members of his family. The OCE closed the case without recommending an ethics committee inquiry.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), also a co-sponsor of the bill, is the subject of an ongoing ethics committee investigation into her relationship with the National Bankers Association and OneUnited Bank, and her role in the decision to provide $12 million in federal bailout funds to the latter in 2009.

Waters’ husband, Sidney Williams, had served on OneUnited Bank’s board and owned a minimum of $500,000 in stock in 2007.

The ethics committee opened an investigative subcommittee into Waters after receiving a referral from OCE.

The OCE declined to comment for this article.