Hill Ethics Investigations on the Rise

The Office of Congressional Ethics has been opening probes at a quicker pace than in the previous Congress.

National Journal
April 30, 2015, 12:12 p.m.

The Of­fice of Con­gres­sion­al Eth­ics boos­ted its work­load at the start of the 114th Con­gress, tak­ing a pre­lim­in­ary look at 15 pos­sible eth­ics vi­ol­a­tions that came across the non-par­tis­an agency’s desk in the first three months of the year.

These are cases in which there’s a “reas­on­able basis” to in­dic­ate a vi­ol­a­tion could have oc­curred. By com­par­is­on, the OCE launched a total of 36 such re­views in the en­tire two years of the 113th Con­gress. And in all but two of this year’s 15 cases, the of­fice found prob­able cause that an eth­ics vi­ol­a­tion may have oc­curred, mean­ing a second re­view has com­menced.

The reas­ons for the stepped-up in­vest­ig­at­ive pace aren’t pub­lic. That’s be­cause the of­fice—an in­de­pend­ent en­tity charged with re­view­ing al­leg­a­tions against House mem­bers, of­ficers, and staffers—keeps its in­vest­ig­a­tions con­fid­en­tial at the start. But its work holds weight. It has the power to refer cases to the House Eth­ics Com­mit­tee, which can con­vene a sub­com­mit­tee to launch a full-fledged in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the mat­ter.

Some high-pro­file cases that have grabbed me­dia at­ten­tion could be the sub­jects of in­vest­ig­a­tions. Me­dia re­ports have said OCE looked in­to the al­leg­a­tions of mis­spend­ing that came out against Rep. Aaron Schock in rap­id suc­ces­sion this year, caus­ing him to resign.

The cases of pre­lim­in­ary re­views var­ied dur­ing the past three Con­gres­sion­al ses­sions: The bulk was com­prised of un­eth­ic­al cam­paign activ­ity (46 per­cent), with travel (17 per­cent) and out­side em­ploy­ment and in­come (11 per­cent) the next most likely al­leged al­leg­a­tions. Then comes mis­cel­laneous reas­ons (9 per­cent), gifts (8 per­cent), of­fi­cial al­low­ances (6 per­cent), and fin­an­cial dis­clos­ure is­sues (3 per­cent), ac­cord­ing to the of­fice’s quarterly re­port.

OCE’s in­vest­ig­a­tions are multi-pronged. The of­fice re­ceives tips from the pub­lic, eth­ics-based or­gan­iz­a­tions, its board mem­bers, and oth­ers. But that doesn’t mean an in­vest­ig­a­tion be­gins. Rather, two OCE board mem­bers de­cide if and when a 30-day pre­lim­in­ary re­view is needed.

Only the board can trig­ger a 45-day second-phase re­view if enough evid­ence has been gathered to in­dic­ate that there’s prob­able cause an eth­ics vi­ol­a­tion oc­curred (an­oth­er vote can ex­tend this time frame 14 days).

And fi­nally, the board votes to dis­miss the case or send it to the House Eth­ics Com­mit­tee if there’s sub­stan­tial reas­on to be­lieve a vi­ol­a­tion could have oc­curred. Then the com­mit­tee de­cides if it wants to take up the mat­ter. In March, an eth­ics sub­com­mit­tee formed to in­vest­ig­ate al­leg­a­tions that Rep. Ed Whit­field vi­ol­ated the cham­ber’s rules by al­legedly al­low­ing his wife to use the power of the Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an’s of­fice to help her work as a Hu­mane So­ci­ety Le­gis­lat­ive Fund lob­by­ist.

Since Feb­ru­ary 2009, about 37 per­cent of OCE’s cases have been sent to the House Eth­ics Com­mit­tee, and the rest have been dis­missed. The of­fice’s in­vest­ig­at­ive work re­mains con­fid­en­tial un­less a case is re­ferred for fur­ther re­view to the Eth­ics Com­mit­tee, and then it be­comes pub­lic.

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