A simmering conflict between the House ethics committee and its fledgling investigative arm has escalated into open combat, prompting watchdogs to warn that lawmakers may be gearing up to kill the new Office of Congressional Ethics.
Following the accidental leak on Oct. 29 of a 22-page ethics panel activity report, most news stories have trumpeted the more than 30 House members identified as apparently under investigation. These include at least seven lawmakers caught up in the panel's ongoing probe of defense earmarks and the now-defunct lobbying firm the PMA Group.
But obscured in the hubbub over the leak, which was first reported in the Washington Post, was another explosive document released that very same day: A 525-page ethics committee report attacking the Office of Congressional Ethics. Established in March of last year, the OCE conducts preliminary inquiries and makes recommendations to the full ethics panel, officially the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
The ethics committee's real beef appears to boil down to two complaints: The OCE is being too transparent and too hard on members.
But the ethics committee has chafed under the new system, which has forced the panel to observe unaccustomed deadlines and disclosure rules. Its Oct. 29 report, ostensibly to dismiss a complaint involving Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., devotes more than 30 pages to blasting the OCE for its "fundamentally flawed" handling of the Graves matter.
Among other procedural complaints, the ethics panel faults the OCE for concluding that Graves may have created "the appearance of a conflict of interest" when he invited a witness to testify before the Small Business Committee who had a tenuous business association with the lawmaker's wife. Graves is the committee's ranking Republican.
In rejecting the OCE's recommendation that it investigate, the ethics committee cited in part the absence of any House rule barring "an appearance of a conflict of interest" in selecting witnesses for a committee hearing. The panel was "particularly concerned that OCE's analysis in this matter may create confusion regarding Standards Committee precedent with respect to conflicts of interest," the report stated.
Some congressional watchdogs, however, argue it's the ethics committee that is setting an alarming precedent here, not the OCE.
"The ethics committee has lowered the standard for congressional behavior to a new low," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar in a statement. "They have now said members of Congress are free to create the appearance of a conflict of interest in their congressional work."
Edgar's group and several other watchdog organizations, including Democracy 21 and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, have banded together to warn that the ethics committee's attacks on the OCE look like the first step in an effort to dismantle the new investigative body. Many House members objected to the OCE's creation in the first place, and it's not the first time ethics committee members have clashed with the OCE.
"There's no question that these kinds of attacks lay the base for an effort to undermine, weaken or eliminate the OCE at the beginning of the next Congress," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. He noted that the OCE was created not by statute but thanks to a change in the House's internal rules, which lawmakers review in January.
In its report on Graves, the ethics panel faults the OCE for interviewing witnesses even after agreed-upon review period deadlines had come and gone; failing to hand over exculpatory and supporting documents to Graves; and improperly releasing names and contact information for cooperating witnesses.
The OCE's two chairs, former Reps. David Skaggs, D-Colo., and Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., lashed back with a statement denying any procedural problems and expressing regret that the ethics panel had "mischaracterized" the OCE's work. Neither Skaggs nor Goss could be reached for comment. But OCE spokesman Jon Steinman said the office "has been following all the rules," and he voiced frustration with the "constant stream of criticism coming out of [the] Standards [Committee]."
Such conflicts may be inevitable when committee jurisdictions change. But the ethics panel's obsession with OCE's supposed procedural violations looks awfully ironic, given that its own recently-leaked activity report names dozens of members not yet found guilty of any wrongdoing. Accidentally leaked by a junior staffer, since fired, who had been using peer-to-peer technology on a home computer, that report has caused far more embarrassment than anything put out by the OCE.
The ethics committee's real beef with the OCE, while cloaked in technical jargon, appears to boil down to two complaints: The OCE is being too transparent and too hard on members. Given the Standards Committee's long history of papering over and dropping ethics complaints, this should argue in favor of the OCE's work, not against it.
And while the leaked activity report conveys the initial impression of an ethics committee hard at work, that document dates to July -- which also means that the panel's been investigating dozens of lawmakers for several months with no action.
The committee recently announced that it will investigate alleged ethics violations by California Reps. Maxine Waters (D) and Laura Richardson (D), as recommended by the OCE. It's also busy with ongoing probes involving Reps. John Murtha, D-Pa., and Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., among dozens of others. All this should be more than enough to keep the ethics committee busy -- without wasting time sniping at the OCE for doing its job.