OCE BOARD THE SAME. Office of Congressional Ethics lead counsel Leo Wise is long gone. He may have concluded his job was in the balance along with the Office of Congressional Ethics itself after the GOP won the House. Wrong. The OCE Board remains… the same. We learned last week that eight members investigated last year regarding the timing of fund raisers near votes were dismissed. All eight. That included Rep. Mel Watt whose case was exonerated in Sept. 2010.
A story by Susan Crabtree in THE HILL a few weeks ago click right here informs that the old Office of Congressional Ethics Board is also the new Office of Congressional Ethics Board. All members of the board will remain. Crabtree/THE HILL: Regarding the Congressional Black Caucus specifically, this sentence stands out in THE HILL’s January 19, 2011, story, “the extent and level of ethics scrutiny the OCE has brought is unprecedented in the House, and several targets of the probes, many of them in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and other critics on both sides of the aisle have complained that Pelosi created an entity that has overreached and is out of control.”
WATT CASE LINGERS. After the preliminary investigation of Congressional Black Caucus member Mel Watt of North Carolina, a member of the CBC known for particularly sharp ethics, many in the Caucus grew even more frustrated regarding the Office of Congressional Ethics. Though the preliminary investigation of Rep. Watt resulted in no recommendation by the Office of Congressional Ethics of a full investigation by House Ethics, to say the “preliminary investigation” on Rep. Watt left particularly bitter feelings within the CBC would be an understatement. Many feel that if it could happen to their most ethically astute member it could happen to anyone. That the theory of the case, that Rep. Watt “may have” violated House Rules if he “solicited and accepted contributions in exchange for an official act…” left many members, — in the CBC and out — floored. That Rep. Watt, who holds one of the safest districts in the House and held only nine fundraisers in two years (2009 and 2010) led to that feeling. That the fundraiser the Office of Congressional Ethics focused on is an annual event the Congressman has held for years and that that particular event could hardly be defined as a mysterious “swanky” affair where influence pedaling would thrive added to the resentment.
When, (1) the details of the Watt case became known to the press after the Office of Congressional Ethics didn’t request in writing that potential witnesses in the investigation keep details confidential, (2) that the Office of Congressional Ethics requested information from Watt after extending the review period 14 days — and allegedly didn’t inform him of this until after he pointed out the initial review period had ended, (3) that the Office of Congressional Ethics initiated the preliminary investigation on Rep. Watt from within — not from an outside complaint was noted.
Additionally, the Office of Congressional Ethics did not provide a copy of its findings of the “preliminary investigation” to Rep. Watt at the end of it all. That Watt had to pull all records the Office of Congressional Ethics requested himself so as not to involve staff in a legal matter is also a detail members are aware of. The issue of whether black members of Congress have been disproportionately focused on when it comes to ethics investigations was focused on in an article in POLITICO back in November 2009 read here entitled “Racial disparity: All active ethics probes focus on black lawmakers.” Rep. Charlie Rangel was censured in early December. The House Ethics trial of Rep. Maxine Waters is pending after a disruption related to attorneys who were fired from the committee staff after allegedly investigating her case in a way that may have been improper.
In June of 2010, two unidentified GOP House members were quoted in POLITICO, in a piece by John Breshnahan, read here as saying the Office of Congressional Ethics was “out of control” and another remarked “they’re not supposed to be an independent prosecutor.” These complaints are similar to what several CBC members have said. Even with all the angst expressed, Speaker Boehner has not made any changes to Office of Congressional Ethics. We’ll see if the Office of Congressional Ethics takes up the case of Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick regarding an event (some say was a fundrasier) in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center when he should have been on the floor of the House being officially sworn-in. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a formal complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics on the matter.
That the press over-reported the investigation on Watt and under-reported the exoneration didn’t help. Though the Office of Congressional Ethics is obviously not responsible for what the press writes, the political reality of a politician being named in an ethics investigation — whether it be “preliminary” or not — is viewed by members as a potentially damaging threat to the reputation of the individual being investigated, despite the fact many “preliminary” investigations do not move forward. Back on June 15, 2010, THE HILL read here pointed out in a story on the Watt case that, “nearly half the 48 “preliminary reviews” launched during this Congress through the first quarter of this year did not go further.”
OCE = POLITICAL LAND MINE. So far, Speaker Boehner has been quiet on the issue of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Any member of Congress recommending legislative changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics faces political peril and would likely be accused of weakening ethics reform and/or dodging House rules. Will anyone make another play against the Office of Congressional Ethics?