While indicted Rep. Michael Grimm and "kissing congressman" Vance McAllister grabbed headlines this week, they are hardly the only ones in Congress answering ethics questions.
The House Ethics Committee has several dozen cases before it involving members of Congress and staff—including at least nine that involve sitting lawmakers—and not all are being resolved in an open and timely way. Some have no deadline for a resolution attached to them. A few have gone on for years.
"They can continue to delay and not actually act if they choose to do so," said Craig Holman, senior legislative director for Public Citizen. He said that is the case, despite reforms to the process that have led the committee to disclose more of its activities.
Cases are supposed to be addressed according to a set timeline. For example, the Ethics Committee is required by Monday under its rules to announce its next step in an inquiry involving Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
Published reports dating from last summer have questioned payments by the congressman totaling more than $500,000 over 10 years to a Chicago lobbyist, who used to be his chief of staff, to do various jobs for his congressional office. The committee could announce it is expanding its review by empaneling a special investigative subcommittee to consider whether Gutierrez broke House rules and, if so, possibly recommend punishment. It could also dismiss the case.
Either way, the committee is likely to release an independent report it was provided on the matter from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which will provide more details.
The requirement that the report from the OCE, a separate independent watchdog that refers matters to the committee, be released is one of the reforms that Holman said was enacted. Previously, he said, the committee could "take in cases and bury them and never act. This at least created some public disclosure."
But the disposition of some other cases is still far less than clear. Some have been given a so-called Committee Rule 18(a) designation, with a public statement explaining that "additional information [is] necessary to complete its review." Such a status is usually followed by boilerplate language explaining that extending the review does not indicate any judgment on behalf of the committee.
"Rule 18(a) essentially provides that there is no deadline for resolving a matter," explains Brett Kappel, a lawyer who specializes in political law, including campaign and ethics rules and regulations.
Ethics matters that remain unresolved under 18(a) include those involving Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; Tim Bishop, D-N.Y.; Vern Buchanan, R-Fla.; Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.; and Aaron Schock, R-Ill.
"There have been an inordinately large number of cases extended under this section during this and the previous Congress," Kappel says.
For instance, OCE made an initial referral of its investigatory findings to the committee regarding Bachmann, who has announced she is not running for another term, on June 13, 2013. The allegations involve her 2012 presidential campaign, including potential payments to a consultant through an outside group, and whether the campaign promoted a book tour for her.
On Sept. 11 of last year, the committee announced it was extending its review under 18(a) and has not said anything more. Bachmann is not running for another term this year and so will not be under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Committee after she leaves Congress in January.
The committee did resolve a matter involving Buchanan, but has yet to announce a conclusion to a second matter that it extended under 18(a) on May 9, 2012. One of the oldest matters involves Hastings. The initial OCE referral was on Oct. 13, 2011. The last word from the committee was on Jan. 11, 2012, when it said it needed to gather more information.
Tom Rust, the committee's staff director and chief counsel, declined to comment Thursday. But the committee's most recent annual report provides a detailed look at the scope of what's pending, at least in terms of numbers.
According to the report, the committee carried 35 investigative matters into 2013 from Congress's previous two-year session. Last year, it commenced another 23 investigative matters, empaneling three investigative subcommittees. It also resolved 27 matters in 2013 (five publicly and 22 confidentially).
In recent weeks and months, details of some cases have come to light. For instance, Rep. Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican, says the committee is looking into what he calls a "reporting error" by his campaign to the Federal Election Commission.
An OCE referral launched a review involving GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, which concerns allegations that she violated a rule against comingling campaign and taxpayer-funded resources in her race for the chairmanship. Similarly, freshman Rep. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, is under review in a case involving how much income he derived from his family's plumbing businesses last year and what role he played in the company.
Not all cases necessarily involve OCE referrals.
Another case involves Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican. The last committee announcement on that case was on March 19, 2013, when the panel said it was forming an investigative subcommittee to determine whether he broke any code of conduct or law regarding allegations he "received, or accepted gifts, improperly used official resources or campaign funds for personal purposes, failed to report certain gifts on his annual Financial Disclosure Statements, and made false statements to federal officials." There has been no update since.
Of course, Grimm himself also has the Ethics Committee to contend with, along with federal prosecutors. House rules require the committee to either empanel an investigative subcommittee or report to the House why it has not done so "no later than 30 days" after a member has been indicted or otherwise formally charged with criminal conduct.
For Grimm, the clock began running with his indictment April 25.
This article appears in the May 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.