McMorris Rodgers faces ethics review

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) is under review by the Ethics Committee stemming from her victory in an internal party leadership race to become chairman of the House Republican conference.

The Ethics Committee, in its first public statement on the matter, on Thursday announced it had decided to extend its consideration of the McMorris Rodgers case after the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) recommended an inquiry in December.

Todd Winer, a former spokesman for the congresswoman, made a complaint to the OCE after leaving her office early last year, according to sources familiar with the inquiry. In his complaint, the sources say, he alleges that the now-fourth-ranking Republican in the House misused funds during her battle with Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for the leadership post following the 2012 elections.

Winer was “terminated from the office with cause” after McMorris Rodgers won the race, according to a source familiar with the inquiry, and he alleged to the OCE that she improperly mixed official taxpayer funds with money from her campaign committee during the bid against Price. The source described Winer as “a former disgruntled employee” who retaliated after he was passed over for the post of communications director for the GOP conference.

Lawmakers are permitted to use campaign funds and official staff for congressional leadership races, but the funds are not supposed to be commingled.

The news of the possible Ethics investigation, first reported by Politico, comes less than two weeks after McMorris Rodgers took a turn in the national spotlight by delivering the official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. She is the highest-ranking woman in the House leadership.

McMorris Rodgers denied any wrongdoing.

“The congresswoman and her office cooperated fully with the OCE during its inquiry and have already begun assisting the committee with its review,” said Elliot Berke, an attorney with McGuireWoods retained by McMorris Rodgers. “We are confident that the committee will ultimately find that the allegations were baseless and that her office always followed all laws, rules and standards of conduct.”

Berke characterized the referral from OCE to the Ethics Committee as “virtually automatic” and “an unfortunate rite of passage” for members of Congress.

Winer, who now serves as a spokesman for Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), did not return calls on Thursday.

The OCE refers cases to the full Ethics Committee when its board has “substantial reason to believe allegations” are true, according to its website. For the 113th Congress, it has referred 10 out of 18 cases to the committee, according to a report filed at the end of 2013.

The Ethics Committee had 45 days to issue a finding or extend its initial review once it received the OCE referral on Dec. 23. It now has until March 24 to announce its next course of action.

In its statement, the panel noted that the “mere fact of a referral or extension … does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.”

The committee made a separate announcement extending its review of a matter involving freshman Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Ind.).

--This post was updated at 3:35 p.m.