When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi first pushed her wary colleagues to set up a new investigative team to beef up ethics enforcement, some watchdogs argued against it. Since ethics investigators would have no subpoena power, critics warned, they'd have no meaningful authority and would simply act as a fig leaf.
But two years later, the Office of Congressional Ethics is making surprising waves in the House.
The OCE's investigation into the PMA Group, a now-defunct defense contractor, turned up some of the most startling evidence to date of the link between campaign donations and congressional earmarks. Its eye-opening report on PMA's dealings with more than half a dozen House members helped prompt the House Appropriations Committee to ban earmarks aimed at for-profit companies. Now the OCE has forwarded its evidence to the Justice Department; PMA is already under FBI investigation.
The status quo before the Office of Congressional Ethics' creation was for the moribund Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to kill, squelch and bury ethics complaints.
"We felt we had a responsibility to provide this information to an appropriate law enforcement agency," said OCE staff director and chief counsel Leo Wise, a former Justice Department trial attorney.
The OCE's investigation into a corporate-funded Caribbean trip by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., led the full ethics committee to admonish Rangel, who then stepped aside as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
But the real evidence that OCE has shaken things up is the angry complaints House members have leveled at the investigative committee, which is chaired by former Reps. David Skaggs, D-Colo., and Porter Goss, R-Fla.
The latest salvo against the House's fledgling investigative arm comes from Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who's rounded up 19 signatures on a resolution that would strip the OCE of much of its power and bar it from releasing most findings. Among other provisions, the measure would force OCE to seal the records for complaints that the ethics committee dismissed as frivolous or unfounded.
"It's not any attempt to hide anything, it's not any attempt to diminish the committee's authority, it is not in any way an attempt to weaken the ethics process," said Fudge. Rather, she argued, the resolution would "strengthen the process" and improve "fundamental fairness."
But Fudge's resolution has "zero credibility," countered Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in part because many of those who signed it have themselves been OCE ethics targets. All 20 lawmakers who signed the Fudge resolution are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has more than half a dozen members who have faced or are facing OCE ethics inquiries.
Five CBC members were on the same corporate and lobbyist-sponsored Caribbean trip that got Rangel in hot water. While it did admonish Rangel, the ethics committee rejected the OCE's recommendation that it further investigate the other four lawmakers on the trip.
However, the ethics panel also faulted Dawn Kelly Mobley, who was at that time an aide to then-ethics committee chair Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, for her role in the trip and in the investigation. Mobley is now Fudge's chief of staff.
"This is an attack on the Office of Congressional Ethics for doing its job," said Wertheimer. He added that good-government advocates have long anticipated attacks on the OCE and expect them to continue. The OCE "has done exactly what it was established to do," he added, and "is having a substantial impact in terms of creating accountability in the system."
The status quo before the OCE's creation, he noted, was for the moribund Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to kill, squelch and bury ethics complaints.
In one sense, this hasn't really changed much since the OCE's creation. Though the full ethics committee panel has hired more staff and has a few dozen investigations under way, the panel has brushed aside virtually all of the OCE's recommendations. The OCE has made 13 referrals recommending further review to the full ethics panel. But the committee has taken action (the Rangel admonishment) in only one of those cases; three are still under review.
Interestingly, though, the mere publication of OCE's referrals is changing the House's ethics culture. The OCE may not impose sanctions; its role is simply to vet complaints with preliminary inquiries and to make recommendations to the full ethics panel. But in cases where the ethics committee fails to take action, the panel must explain why and publicly release any referrals from the OCE.
These public disclosures are what have irked Fudge and so many of her colleagues. The real reason House members are targeting OCE, it seems, is because its investigators are finally shedding some light on the once secretive ethics process. Much of Fudge's resolution centers on sealing records, banning public statements and blocking the release of reports.
One signature is conspicuously missing from Fudge's resolution, however: that of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., a prominent CBC member and one of its former chairs. This may signal that other House leaders, including Pelosi, may be reluctant to follow Fudge's lead. Given Pelosi's public pledges to clean up Capitol Hill, she would certainly be ill-advised to let the House ethics process revert to secrecy.