The House Ethics Committee is set to announce by Monday night whether it will investigate Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers to determine whether she violated an obscure House rule on the way to winning a top party leadership spot.
The 44-year-old from Washington is the No. 4-ranked Republican leader in the House and a rising political star. The bipartisan Ethics Committee will likely draw criticism if it presses the case — and also if it doesn't.
"It's all the more interesting because you have a former member of her own staff making the allegations," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
At the center of the case is McMorris Rodgers's former press spokesman, Todd Winer, who was on her staff at the time of the leadership race but now serves as communications director for Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican. The charges involve claims that McMorris Rodgers commingled campaign and official House funds to win a slim majority in her leadership race against Rep. Tom Price of Georgia in late 2012.
News that the Ethics Committee was reviewing the matter officially surfaced in February, just a week after McMorris Rodgers grabbed the national spotlight as her party's choice to give the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union Address.
The case was referred in December from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which conducted its own review.
McMorris Rodgers's current staffers insists there was no wrongdoing, and her lawyer, Elliot Berke, dismissed the fact that the OCE referred the case. He even took a swipe at the Office of Congressional Ethics itself, suggesting that "the OCE regularly refers matters to the House Ethics Committee for further review" and calling it "an unfortunate rite of passage for many members of Congress."
"Such reviews are virtually automatic," Berke said, "and as the committee always points out, do not indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee."
McMorris Rodgers's office had no comment heading into Monday.
The OCE's initial findings still have not been made public, although they may be released Monday. Sloan says it remains difficult for those outside the investigation to independently gauge its merits.
At the time of the leadership race, McMorris Rodgers was already the conference vice chair, the highest-ranking woman serving in House GOP leadership. She also served as the liaison between Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and House Republicans. But her ascension to the chairmanship was anything but assured.
Price was then the Republican Policy Committee chairman — the No. 5 leadership job — and a former Republican Study Committee chairman. He had a deep well of support from conservative members of the conference.
During her campaign to win over GOP colleagues, McMorris Rodgers mailed a packet to each of them, touting her role in communicating the conservative agenda in TV appearances and saying she "raised over $1,000,000 to the NRCC, contributed over $300,000 to candidates, and traveled to 51 congressional districts in 22 states."
Winer told investigators that she broke the rule against commingling campaign and official House resources. But sources sympathetic to McMorris Rodgers have sought to depict him as a disgruntled former employee, who was unhappy about not getting the job as the House Republican Conference communications director.
Winer did not return a telephone call or an email to discuss the case.
The Ethics Committee has options in how it handles the case. It could simply drop the matter. Or it could announce that it's found enough to take its inquiry to the next level, which would be to empanel a special investigative subpanel to determine whether there was a violation.
Whatever the outcome, Sloan said that cases like this must be taken seriously. "This is not just a rite of passage," she said.