Many House members averse to cooperating with OCE, study shows

Lawmakers face no sanctions for refusing to participate in investigations

Rep. David Schweikert, Ariz., center, did not cooperate fully with the Office of Congressional Ethics.  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. David Schweikert, Ariz., center, did not cooperate fully with the Office of Congressional Ethics. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2021 at 4:37pm

More than a third of House members investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics refused to fully cooperate with the probes since the office started investigating lawmakers in 2009, according to a new report by the Campaign Legal Center.

The report shows that 23 members did not completely participate in Office of Congressional Ethics investigations and, with the exception of the 113th Congress, member cooperation has steadily declined. The data is based on all the public OCE investigations into members.

Kedric Payne, a former OCE attorney and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said one reason for the lack of cooperation is that “the members feel as though they can not cooperate and face no consequences.”

Reps. Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss., Lori Trahan, D-Mass., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and David Schweikert, R-Ariz., are among current members who did not fully cooperate with the office, according to the report.

Unlike the House Ethics Committee, the OCE lacks subpoena power and cannot issue sanctions. When members choose not to sit for OCE interviews or produce certain documents, the OCE is forced to complete its fact-gathering process without that information.

When the OCE finds there is a substantial reason to believe a violation occurred, the office submits its report to the House Ethics Committee and the report does not become public for some time after receipt, thus delaying any disclosure. One way to compel members to engage fully with the OCE’s investigative process is to make its reports publicly available when they are sent to the House Ethics Committee in cases where a lawmaker refuses to cooperate.

“That would be a significant deterrent for those who want to stonewall the OCE,” Payne said.

Even with members refusing to cooperate, the OCE continues to produce detailed reports of alleged wrongdoing. The Senate has no OCE equivalent, and its lack of public reports on ethics investigations underscores that. Since 2009, there have been six public reports from the Senate Ethics Committee. Over that same period, the OCE produced 92 public reports, according to the CLC study.

In 2006, the Senate considered creating an independent Office of Public Integrity to investigate member misconduct in the chamber, but the effort — led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and co-sponsored by the late John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as then-Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. — fell short.

William Beaman, a spokesperson for the OCE, did not comment.

OCE investigations have helped result in criminal convictions of former Reps. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., although the two were later pardoned by former President Donald Trump. 

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. spent thousands in taxpayer money on holiday parties, and the Georgia Democrat used campaign funds on greens fees, golf gear and luxurious trips, according to an OCE report. The House Ethics Committee has yet to adjudicate questions about Bishop’s spending. 

Other OCE probes have compelled the House Ethics Committee and the full House to take action. An OCE investigation into Schweikert resulted in the Arizona Republican being reprimanded on the House floor and fined $50,000.

Schweikert allowed his office to misuse taxpayer dollars. He also violated campaign finance reporting requirements, spent campaign money for personal use and pressured staffers to perform campaign work.

Proponents of the OCE say the office has cracked down on wrongdoing by members and has deterred misconduct. In July 2008, when the OCE’s board was announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-House GOP leader John A. Boehner, Pelosi lauded the move.

“With the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics, we bring a new element of transparency and accountability to the ethics process,” Pelosi said at the time.

Since the OCE started investigating members, bipartisan groups of lawmakers have made several efforts to diminish the office’s power and effectively shut it down. 

In 2010, 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by then-Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, introduced a resolution that sought to conceal most of OCE’s reports from the public. Bishop was among the co-sponsors, but the measure was never adopted.

In 2017, the House Republican Conference voted to substantially undercut the OCE, but that move was later rebuked by leadership, and the effort, led by former Virginia Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, faded.