Ethics Case Shrouds a GOP Star

Committee will determine whether to investigate McMorris Rodgers further

U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers
National Journal
Billy House
March 23, 2014, 7:56 a.m.

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.

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