Office of Congressional Ethics sees cases dip amid coronavirus pandemic

OCE sent seven cases to House Ethics Committee in 116th Congress for adjudication

Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., is now being investigated by the House Ethics panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., is now being investigated by the House Ethics panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 11, 2021 at 2:25pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics sent seven referrals of alleged lawmaker misconduct to the House Ethics Committee for the 116th Congress, the lowest number since it began undertaking investigations in 2009.

The dip from 2019 to the very beginning of 2021 is directly attributable to the coronavirus pandemic, according to several people with knowledge of the operation. Investigations the OCE sends to the House Ethics Committee have oscillated since the 111th Congress, when it sent 22. In the 114th Congress there were 18 referrals, and 11 in the 115th Congress.

Over the course of the two-year span, the independent nonpartisan entity referred matters involving Reps. Sanford D. Bishop, Jr., D-Ga., Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., and Del. Michael F.Q. San Nicolas, among others.

The OCE said Bishop used taxpayer money for Christmas parties and used campaign funds for greens fees at country clubs, golf gear and school tuition.

Palazzo, according to the OCE, used campaign money to fix up an investment property for its sale, had his congressional staff run personal errands and tried to use his position of power to get his brother, Kyle, reenlisted in the Navy.

San Nicolas, the OCE says, misused campaign funds and accepted improper contributions. Further, a former staffer, John Paul Manuel, has alleged San Nicolas had a sexual relationship with Jennifer Winn, a subordinate on his congressional staff.

The OCE does not have the authority to issue sanctions and all of the above matters have yet be adjudicated by the House Ethics Committee, a panel known for engaging in a drawn-out process and meting out light punishment.

Of the investigations conducted by the OCE in the 116th Congress, the highest percentage of the cases involved activities on matters of personal interest (20 percent) followed by official allowances and campaign activity (both at 18 percent). Travel, at 16 percent, was the next highest. Other matters involved outside employment and income (10 percent), gifts (8 percent) and financial disclosure (4 percent). Those numbers are similar to the breakdown from the 115th Congress.

Investigations by the OCE have resulted in criminal prosecution and convictions.

In the 114th Congress, the OCE investigated former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and the following Congress, the OCE investigated former Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y.

Collins went to federal prison for insider trading and Hunter was sentenced to federal prison for misusing campaign funds; however, both were pardoned for their crimes by former President Donald Trump. Collins served a fraction of his sentence and Hunter never had to report to prison.