House Ethics Calls John Lewis’ Office re Civil Rights Speeches

House Ethics Calls John Lewis’ Office re Civil Rights Speeches

“It’s resolved now,” Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) quietly responded last week in the Cannon Office Building when asked whether or not the House Ethics Committee contacted him or his office over his civil rights speeches.  

Lewis confirmed that a counsel from the House Ethics Committee contacted his Chief of Staff, Michael Collins, regarding speeches but did not go into detail. 

A call to House Ethics on June 4th regarding the matter confirmed there was contact, though House Ethics Staff Director and Chief Counsel Tom Rust would not provide details for the record. Several sources say an Ethics counsel contacted Lewis’ office regarding a civil rights related speech in Biloxi, Mississippi and attempted to bar Lewis from making the speech. But later, when Lewis’ office re-questioned the decision, the decision was reversed.   

“I can’t talk to you about that. No comment,” Rust said when asked about whether someone on the House Ethics staff had contacted Lewis’ Chief of Staff regarding the Congressman’s speeches. Several of Lewis’ House colleagues were not happy about the matter and believe Ethics contacting Lewis’ office was baffling.  Members close to Lewis say the Ethics counsel who contacted Lewis’ Chief of Staff was Robert Eskridge, a graduate of Morehouse. 

When asked about that matter, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) responded, “the matter is now resolved” adding, “this is not a story. It’s been corrected and it’s a non issue at this point.” Butterfield also added that Lewis being contacted was “outrageous.” Exactly why Lewis’ office was contacted is unclear.

“They called him about what!” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). “What?! You’re kidding,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-M), wanting more details after being asked if he was aware of the matter.  Other members knew of the story and were not happy. 

Lewis is a much in demand speaker.  As the only living speaker at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington and as a bona fide living legend in Congress, Lewis’ schedule is busy.  Lewis spoke alongside President Obama at the March 7, 2015, 5oth anniversary commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala.  He is also frequently recognized in the halls of the Capitol and stopped by visitors and tourists.

John1Members of Congress can make as many speeches as they like but their travel arrangements must be approved thirty days in advance by the House Ethics Committee beforehand if paid for by the host or by taxpayer money. Members may not accept honoraria. Some members of Congress pay out of pocket or use campaign funds to pay for such travel to avoid dealing with House Ethics’ approvals, which can sometimes be lengthy.  

In almost three decades in Congress, Lewis has never been the subject of an Ethics investigation but the House Ethics Committee and the newer Office of Congressional Ethics has focused on Black members disproportionately.  Some speculate that political groups are filing a disproportionate number of complaints on Black members.  The history regarding the House Ethics Committee’s focus on African American members of Congress, from an investigation of the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell in 1967, to former Reps. Harold Ford (D-TN), Lou Stokes (D-OH), Mel Watt (D-NC), all of whom were cleared, is extensive.

In 2009, the story, Racial disparity: All active ethics probes focus on black lawmakers, by John Bresnahan, appeared in Politico. What followed was the censure of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) in 2010 and the reprimand of Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) in 2012, with all members involved in other cases being cleared including Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), and the late Don Payne, Sr. (D-NJ).