For the 14th straight year, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics has refrained from issuing any disciplinary sanctions, a trend that underscores the investigatory inaction of the panel charged with policing the conduct of senators.
The panel’s annual report for 2020 notes that it issued no letters of admonition and dismissed 119 of the 144 matters that the six-member, bipartisan committee received. The committee has had zero matters that resulted in disciplinary sanction since 2007, the year the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act required it to issue an annual report.
The timely stock trades of Sens. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., came under scrutiny when they all traded stocks before the coronavirus pandemic decimated the stock market in March.
In June, the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed insider trading allegations against Loeffler, weeks after the Justice Department concluded its inquiry into whether she sold off stock after a coronavirus briefing, using material nonpublic information. (Loeffler lost a special election runoff last month.)
Last month, Burr announced that the DOJ had concluded its review of his financial transactions and closed the case. When CQ Roll Call asked Caitlin Carroll, a spokeswoman for Burr, whether Senate Ethics had closed its inquiry into the senator, she referred the question to the committee. Shannon Kopplin, a spokeswoman for the Ethics panel, did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, seven Democratic senators asked the Ethics Committee to investigate Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Missouri Republican Josh Hawley for objecting to the Electoral College vote certification on Jan. 6, the same day when a violent pro-Trump group of insurrectionists invaded the Capitol. Hawley then asked the panel to investigate the Democrats for abusing the ethics process. The panel’s annual report suggests any chance of action on either case is unlikely.
Meredith McGehee, executive director of the government watchdog group Issue One, was critical of the Ethics panel’s lack of enforcement.
“As Issue One stated in our 2017 analysis, the Senate Ethics Committee is ‘the embodiment of a black hole lacking a strong, public record of ensuring a highly ethical culture in the chamber it oversees.’ The Committee has historically punted on difficult questions that come before them, despite their purported authority to hold Senate members accountable. If you believe there have been zero ethics violations in more than thirteen years, then I have some beach front property to sell you in Arizona,” McGehee said in a statement.
A letter of admonition is a warning and not considered an official disciplinary sanction. They are counted differently in the annual report. The last time Senate Ethics issued a public letter of admonition was months after New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez’s federal corruption mistrial in 2018.
The House Ethics Committee last year recommended that Arizona Republican David Schweikert be reprimanded for permitting his office to misuse taxpayer dollars, violations of campaign finance reporting requirements and several other violations of federal law and House rules. Schweikert agreed to pay a $50,000 fine and was formally reprimanded on the House floor. Before Schweikert, the most recent member reprimanded on the House floor was in 2012 when California Democrat Laura Richardson was sanctioned.
Schweikert’s violations were initially investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics, a House-specific independent investigative entity. It was created in 2008 and provides a mechanism for public disclosure of alleged violations. The office transmits investigative reports to the House Ethics Committee, which must then act on them.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed legislation that would give the OCE jurisdiction in the Senate, but it has yet to become law.