Democrats file ethics complaints against Hawley and Cruz, but action unlikely

Secretive ethics committee last took public action in 2018

Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, in background, attend the Judiciary Committee markup on Dec. 10.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, in background, attend the Judiciary Committee markup on Dec. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 21, 2021 at 8:20pm

Seven Democratic senators are asking the chamber’s ethics committee to investigate Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley for objecting to the Electoral College certification of President Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, a day in which a violent pro-Trump group of insurrectionists invaded the Capitol.

It is doubtful that the committee, which took no disciplinary actions in 2019 — the most recent year for which an annual report is available — and dismissed almost all of the 251 complaints it received that year, will venture into a complaint that is light on alleged ethics violations.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tina Smith of Minnesota, with five of their colleagues, wrote to Chairman Chris Coons, D-Del., and Vice Chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., alleging that Hawley and Cruz “lent legitimacy to the mob’s cause and made future violence more likely.”

The complaint notes that the chamber “has disciplined members for conduct that it has deemed unethical or improper, regardless of whether it violated any written law or Senate rule or regulation, as well as violations of law.”

Former President Donald Trump held a rally before the riots in which he declared he had really won the election and told supporters, "we're going to have to fight much harder." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump provoked the violent rioters, but he has not called out Hawley or Cruz.

The House reacted to the riot, from which members fled to secure locations, by impeaching Trump for incitement, a vote that drew unanimous Democratic support and 10 "yes" votes from 10 Republicans.

“Joe Biden and the Democrats talk about unity but are brazenly trying to silence dissent,” Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said in a statement. “This latest effort is a flagrant abuse of the Senate ethics process and a flagrant attempt to exact partisan revenge. Democrats appear intent on weaponizing every tool at their disposal — including pushing an unconstitutional impeachment process — to further divide the country. Missourians will not be cancelled by these partisan attacks."

Jessica Skaggs, a spokesperson for Cruz, R-Texas, said Democrats were "disregarding President Biden's call for unity" and "filing frivolous ethics complaints against their colleagues. Sen. Cruz debated a question of law and policy on the floor of the Senate, he did so expressly supported by 11 other Senators, and he utilized a process to raise the objection that has been explicitly authorized by federal law for nearly 150 years."

Barring a strong bipartisan push from leadership, it is unlikely the Senate Select Committee on Ethics will have any appetite to take on this complaint in a significant way.

When the ethics panel receives a complaint, it can undertake a preliminary inquiry to see whether there is enough evidence for the committee to conclude there was a relevant violation that occurred. The scope of that is dependent on Coons and Lankford.

Madeline Broas, a spokesperson for Coons, referred comment to Shannon Kopplin of the committee, who did not return a request for comment.

There is no set timetable on the handling of the complaint and there is no guarantee the public would see any component of a potential investigation.

The committee last publicly disciplined Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who was embroiled in a corruption scandal that ended with a mistrial in 2017. After a judge dismissed the most serious charges and the Justice Department said it would not retry him, the ethics panel released a public letter of admonition in 2018. The letter said Menendez's actions reflected discredit upon the Senate by accepting improper gifts of substantial value from a friend and top campaign contributor, Salomon Melgen, and that he needed to pay back the fair market value of the gifts he received. Melgen, who was serving time in prison, was pardoned by Trump this week.

Before Menendez, the most recent public disciplinary action the Senate Ethics Committee took was in 2012.

The ethics committee examined well-timed stock trades made by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., before the coronavirus ravaged the stock market last March. Loeffler was cleared by the ethics panel. Burr was being investigated by the Department of Justice, but his office announced this week the case was closed without charges.

Lindsey McPherson and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.