Retiring Rep. Tom Petri will continue to be scrutinized by the House Ethics Committee regarding whether he broke House conflict-of-interest rules in his official dealings on behalf of two companies in which he owned stock.
In announcing that it is not dismissing the case, the secretive committee also released a report Tuesday from another investigative agency that—for the first time publicly—details those accusations against the Wisconsin Republican.
Among revelations from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics report is that the matters under investigation go beyond Petri’s efforts between 2008 and 2013 on behalf of Oshkosh Corp., a defense contractor in his district in which he owned hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock.
The report also raises questions about his official actions involving another company in which Petri owns stock, the Manitowoc Company, which makes cranes and food-service equipment.
OCE serves as an independent watchdog that does an initial vetting of ethics complaints before forwarding them to the Ethics Committee for further action.
Petri, 74, responded forcefully and angrily Tuesday against the OCE in a response released by his office. He called its findings flawed, saying his actions had been guided by advice from the Ethics Committee itself, and challenged the committee to wrap up the case by the end of the year before he leaves Congress.
Petri, who is in his 18th term, announced in April that he would not run for reelection.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Ethics Committee has not yet resolved this case once and for all,” Petri said Tuesday.
“But I remain hopeful that the Ethics Committee—and anyone objectively reviewing the record—will conclude that I have acted properly and complied with House rules,” he continued. “Any suggestion to the contrary by the Office of Congressional Ethics report is untrue, biased, and incomplete.”
“Allowing the OCE report to stand as the so-called last word is certainly unfair to my record of public service,” added Petri.
But it remains unclear whether the Ethics Committee will have enough time to complete a full review—particularly if an investigative subcommittee is determined to be warranted—before he leaves office.
Petri is now the House’s third-most-senior Republican. Only Reps. Don Young of Alaska and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin have more seniority than Petri in the House GOP.
It was Petri himself who on Feb. 16 wrote to the Ethics Committee asking for a formal review of news articles that had questioned his ownership of stock in companies and his actions on their behalf.
In the referral report to the Ethics Committee, the OCE notes that the congressman as of December 2006 reported owning between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in Oshkosh. By December 2013, he reported owning between $500,000 and $1 million worth of stock in Oshkosh.
As of December 2006, Petri reported owning between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in Manitowoc. By December 2013, he reported owning between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of Manitowoc stock.
The report goes on to detail its findings regarding the way Petri worked with other Wisconsin lawmakers to defend the awarding of a $3 billion contract to Oshkosh in 2009 to produce armored trucks and trailers—as detractors, including Texas lawmakers upset that a company in their state had lost out—pushed for the contract to be reconsidered. That push included a letter to the secretary of Defense on behalf of a company based in Sealy, Texas.
In response, Oshkosh sought assistance from the Wisconsin delegation, including Petri.
“I believe we checked every step with the ethics committee. “¦ We wouldn’t have taken any action without reaching out in advance. It was always done through the Chief of Staff,” Petri is quoted as telling OCE officials when asked whether ethical guidance had been sought beforehand.
The OCE report details how Petri at some point in 2009 had a conversation on the House floor with the then-House Armed Services Committee ranking member about the contract and the Texas protest.
Petri’s office also is described as having coordinated an October 2009 letter from the Wisconsin congressional delegation to the secretary of Defense, on behalf of Oshkosh.
But that delegation letter to the secretary of Defense did not include any disclosure of Petri’s personal financial interest in Oshkosh, says the report.
And the OCE contends that assurances made beforehand to the Ethics Committee that the letter would not mention Oshkosh specifically were not kept—the letter to the secretary did mention Oshkosh and “its historical relationship with the Department of Defense.”
“In sum, although Representative Petri and his congressional staff sought Committee on Ethics advice and received Committee approval prior to several communications with executive branch officials and House committee leadership on behalf of Oshkosh,” the OCE acknowledged, nonetheless “in several instances, advice was not sought or the advice provided was based on incomplete or inaccurate information.”
Regarding Manitowoc, the OCE report says Petri worked to get the company hardship relief from environmental rules impacting diesel engines used in its cranes, which the company said could cost it roughly $500 million in revenue and lead to layoffs.
The Environmental Protection Agency official who worked with Petri’s staff on this matter told the OCE that Petri’s stock ownership was not disclosed to him during the initial contacts or in the subsequent letter from the congressman on the matter.
But in his blistering response, Petri noted, “In fact, I have not sold a single share of Oshkosh or Manitowoc stock in the past five years, or ever.”
“I have always taken pains to disclose my investments publicly, as required by the rules of the House, and they have been reported regularly in the local press,” he said. “Indeed, I was proud to let people know I owned stock in several of our district’s largest employers.”
Petri added, “The only reason I—and the entire Wisconsin delegation—became involved in the Oshkosh Corporation case five years ago was because the Texas delegation, representing a company from its state, tried to step in and exert political influence—after its company lost the bid to Oshkosh. I and my Wisconsin colleagues were not going to let the 6th District suffer because another state wanted to play politics.
“The only reason that my staff and I became involved in matters regarding Manitowoc was to ensure fair treatment and to obtain status updates. The actions taken were fully in keeping with House rules,” he said.
The Ethics Committee could have dropped the Petri matter outright if it found no reason to continue with its inquiry—but it did not do so, and it publicly released the OCE’s report of its own findings.
Even so, committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., in a joint statement on Tuesday stopped short of announcing that a special investigative subcommittee with subpoena powers would be formed to expand the inquiry.
Any formal recommendation into whether Petri broke House rules and, if so, should possibly receive punishment, ultimately would have to go through such a sub-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 Republicans to languish, some for years, without further comment.
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