Blackouts Loom for Ethics Referrals

Report Says OCE Will Send 14 Cases to Ethics

Posted July 20, 2010 at 6:32pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics revealed Tuesday it is preparing to make 14 referrals to the House ethics committee. But blackout restrictions tied to the election calendar could delay any public revelations by the committee until after Election Day.

The OCE, which reviews potential rules violations and recommends investigations to the House ethics committee, opened 21 inquiries this spring and will ultimately refer 14 of those cases to the ethics panel, according to a quarterly report issued Tuesday.

When the OCE issues a referral to the ethics committee, that panel has up to 90 days to review the matter — an initial 45-day period and an optional 45-day extension — and determine its next step.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is not required to make a public statement if the OCE recommends a probe be dismissed.

But if the OCE recommends further investigation, the ethics committee must also issue a public statement on the referral at the end of the first 45-day period.

Under rules aimed at curbing influence on the election process, however, the ethics committee may opt to delay any reporting on an OCE report during the 60-day period before any primary or general election in which the Member is a candidate.

That additional delay could mean that any OCE referral not made before Tuesday — 45 days before the general election blackout begins on Sept. 3 — could potentially be delayed until at least Nov. 3, following Election Day.

If a referral were made through early September, the delay could push back any reporting deadlines until December.

Blackout periods tied to the primary calendars of each state and individual Members could also create additional delays. The 60-day blackout period for Members involved in Sept. 14 primary elections in New York, for example, began last week.

Among the probes the OCE revealed Tuesday — the report includes only statistical information and did not identify the subject of the review — six of its latest inquiries would have ended no later than last week, while eight will expire sometime in August.

Eight lawmakers — Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Mel Watt (D-N.C.), Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) — have previously confirmed they are being probed by OCE over fundraising or fundraisers held immediately before the 2009 financial reform vote.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the ethics committee would make use of the blackout period. Although the rules allow the panel to stop the 90-day clock, potentially delaying any necessary public statements or other action, it is not required to do so, and there are no committee rules that specially ban the panel from taking action in the lead-up to an election.

The ethics committee’s own rules also indicate the panel “shall not accept and shall return” to the OCE any referral made within 60 days of an election.

The ethics panel similarly bars formal complaints from Members during that period, although the committee may opt to open an investigation on its own during the same time.

It appears unlikely that the OCE will refer an investigation after the September blackout period begins, however, based on its quarterly report.

The OCE reported as of June 10 that it had opened no additional inquiries. The OCE conducts its reviews in two parts: an initial 30-day inquiry and a second phase that may last up to 59 days.

In its report Tuesday, the OCE stated it dismissed five other reviews in the preliminary stage and halted one other review after a Member resigned.

The only Member to resign during the period cited in the report was Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who stepped down May 18 after revealing an affair with one of his aides.

The OCE declined to confirm Souder’s investigation, and a telephone number listed for Souder in Fort Wayne, Ind., has been disconnected.