Rep. Luis Gutierrez will continue to be investigated by the House Ethics Committee regarding whether he broke House rules by keeping a staffer-turned-lobbyist working and paid by his congressional office — to the tune of more than $590,000 over 10 years, the panel's top leaders said Monday.
The secretive committee also released a report from another investigative agency that — for the first time publicly — details those accusations against the Illinois Democrat, known as one of Congress's most passionate and visible advocates for immigration reform.
The committee could have dropped the case outright if it found no reason to continue with its inquiry. Even so, committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., stopped short of announcing in a joint statement that a special investigative subcommittee with subpoena powers will be formed to expand the inquiry.
Any formal recommendation into whether Gutierrez broke House rules and, if so, should possibly receive punishment, ultimately would have to go through such a panel.
"The committee notes that the mere fact of conducting further review "¦ does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect the judgment on behalf of the committee," Conaway and Sanchez, said providing no time frame for when an update will occur. Rather, the matter has been designated for further review under Committee Rule 18(a), a designation that has enabled a number of other ethics cases against Democrats and Republican to languish, some for years, without further comment.
In a statement, Gutierrez spokesman Douglas Rivlin sought to highlight that the committee has not taken a step to convene a special ethics subcommittee, and said the congressman and his office "will continue to cooperate fully."
"As the committee points out, its review does not indicate that any violation has occurred or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee," Rivlin said.
Still, the timing of Monday's announcement represents a speed bump to fellow Democrats, who in recent days have launched a midterm-election offensive depicting the GOP-led House as a "Republican House of Scandal." They've pointed to Rep. Michael Grimm's indictment last week, and Rep. Vance McAllister's troubles after being caught on videotape kissing an aide.
Even though the committee didn't announce whether there will eventually be a special investigative panel, the news that it hasn't decided to drop the case against Gutierrez, an 11-term Illinois congressman, serves as a reminder that several Democrats remain under scrutiny for alleged misdeeds.
The announcement Monday came with the release of a report from Office of Congressional Ethics outlining why exactly it sent the Gutierrez matter to the committee on Dec. 4. The OCE is a separate, independent watchdog that essentially provides an early vetting of ethical accusations made against lawmakers.
The OCE's report shows that agency's board voted 6-0 to refer the matter to the Ethics Committee, finding that "there is substantial reason to believe that Gutierrez used funds from his congressional office accounts for "an impermissable purpose."
That report goes on to detail much of what Gutierrez's office had already acknowledged publicly.
The investigation was related to a "long-standing contract" involving payments to a lobbyist, Doug Scofield — who stepped down as the congressman's chief of staff in 2002 — to continue advisory work with the lawmaker's staff. Gutierrez's office says the contract for services was consistently and properly reported and approved for renewal each Congress for 10 years, though the OCE investigation, according to the report, was unable to confirm that with the House Administration Committee.
But Gutierrez cancelled the contract last year after published accounts began raising questions about the payments.
In all, the OCE report states Scofield's firm was paid between 2003 and 2012 more than $590,000 for services described as "training" or other "non-legislative" assistance to the congressional office. The report concludes that the payments "more closely resembled those provided by an employee or consultant rather than a contractor — in violation of federal law and House rules."
The OCE report also discloses that Scofield himself declined to provide documentary evidence or testimony to the OCE investigators. According to the report, that also goes for Jennice Fuentes, another Gutierrez former chief of staff, and Enrique Fernandez, a former deputy chief of staff. The report recommends they be subpoenaed by the Ethics Committee.
In his response on behalf of the congressman, Rivlin says that OCE requested 10 years of records, files, notes, and communications (including emails) between Scofield, Gutierrez, and the congressman's staff, and that "the Congressman and ten current or former staff members also voluntarily spoke with the OCE."
"As part of its review, the OCE examined questions relating to lobbying, campaign activities and the Congressman's memoir. The OCE ultimately found no conduct on those issues that necessitated additional review by the House Committee on Ethics," he added.
"After its exhaustive review, the OCE made a single recommendation that the House Committee on Ethics assess whether the approved contract was permissible under ambiguous House rules," Rivlin said.
It remains uncertain how much of an impact the continued inquiry will have on Gutierrez's influence and efforts to champion immigration reform.
Gutierrez has been part of an informal bipartisan group of House members trying to draft an immigration bill that would increase border security and allow the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship.
He also is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, and previously served as chairman of the Democratic Caucus Immigration Task Force.