Independent ethics board: 'Substantial' belief McMorris Rodgers misused funds

An independent congressional ethics board found “substantial reason” to believe Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the fourth-ranking House Republican, improperly used official funds for campaign activities. 

The full findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) were made public for the first time on Monday by the House Ethics Committee, which is extending its review of the allegations against her. The OCE also found McMorris Rodgers improperly combined taxpayer and campaign resources during her winning campaign to become chairwoman of the House Republican Conference in 2012.

But Ethics Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (Calif.), the top Democrat, declined to impanel an investigative subcommittee on the matter, which emerged out of a complaint to the OCE, the independent congressional watchdog, by a former spokesman for McMorris Rodgers who left her office early in 2013.

An attorney for the congresswoman, Elliot Berke, denied the claims made by her former spokesman, Todd Winer, as well as the OCE's findings, in a 21-page letter to the leaders of the Ethics Committee that also was released on Monday. Berke characterized Winer as a disgruntled former employee and referred to statements by his colleagues that Winer had become “dark and twisted” and acted in a manner that left them “concerned for their safety.”

“We recognize the institutional constraints the Ethics Committee is under and understand it was unable to conduct a full review during this 90 day period,” Berke said in a statement. “We remain confident that, in time, the committee will dismiss the complaint which was based on frivolous allegations from a single source — a former employee who then discredited himself by admitting to his own improper conduct.”

In his letter to the committee, Berke urged the panel to investigate Winer for misconduct.

Winer, who now serves as the chief spokesman for Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the Speaker retained “full confidence” in the woman he picked to deliver the Republican Party’s official response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January. Steel said he did not believe Boehner was aware of the ethics complaint when she was selected to give the speech.

The allegations against McMorris Rodgers center on her reelection bid in 2012 and her subsequent leadership campaign to serve as the House GOP conference chairwoman, which made her the party’s highest-ranking woman in the chamber.

ADVERTISEMENT
In its 32-page report, the OCE recommended that the full Ethics Committee review the allegations concerning the use of official resources because, it found, “there is substantial reason to believe that Representative McMorris Rodgers used congressional funds, staff and offices for campaign activities.” Specifically, the OCE referred to several instances in which staffers from the congresswoman’s House office performed campaign duties on official time in violation of House rules, as well as other times that McMorris Rodgers held debate prep sessions in her congressional office during the 2012 election cycle.

When McMorris Rodgers, then the fifth-ranking House Republican, launched her bid to move one spot up the leadership ladder, the OCE found reason to believe she improperly combined congressional and campaign resources in violation of the House rules. The OCE also said she used campaign funds to pay political consultant Brett O’Donnell despite him telling the ethics board he was hired to work for her in her official capacity.

In releasing the OCE report and announcing its decision to extend its review, the Ethics Committee issued its customary declaration that the move “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.”

The OCE pointed to trips that staffers took to the congresswoman’s home district in Spokane, Wash., as well as to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., that were billed to taxpayers even though they were working for her campaign. For a trip to Spokane in early October, for example, the OCE found that a majority of staff time was devoted to campaign activity and that McMorris Rodgers’s office could not provide documentation for official work that her staff conducted in the district. 

Berke argued in his rebuttal that it was Winer who was principally guilty of performing campaign activities on official time, countering his assertions in interviews with the board that it was work he was expected to do.

“At no time has any employee been coerced into doing campaign work,” Berke wrote. Citing statements by top McMorris Rodgers staffers, he described Winer as “a political animal who was eager to volunteer for campaign activity.”

“It now appears incontrovertible that Mr. Winer engaged in campaign activity using official resources,” Berke wrote. “As Mr. Winer remains a House employee, we trust that the committee will review his conduct accordingly.”

Winer was forced out of McMorris Rodgers’s office when she decided not to hire him as the communications director for the GOP conference after her election as chairwoman. Berke included copies of numerous emails that Winer sent to her disputing the circumstances that led to his ouster, seeking additional months of severance pay after he could not find a job and asking for her repeated recommendations for him to work for other members.

Berke quoted McMorris Rodgers’s chief of staff, Jeremy Deutsch, in describing Winer’s increasing “disengagement” and “strange” behavior as his tenure came to an end in 2012.

“Mr. Winer’s behavior became ‘dark and twisted,’ once slamming a car door in Mr. Deutsch’s face and using profanity in a restaurant,” Berke wrote.

McMorris Rodgers did acknowledge at least one misstep in her interviews with the OCE: discussing campaign debate prep in her Rayburn House office in 2012.

Berke said the session occurred as part of a broader meeting and that McMorris Rodgers, then a mother of two, recommended the location “because she knew her home was noisy with her young children.”

“Nevertheless, Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers regrets that the conversation occurred at that location, conveyed that regret to the OCE during its inquiry, and extends that regret to the committee,” Berke wrote.

Updated at 6:15 p.m.  

More in Labor

Labor Board: Workers can use company email for union activity

Read more »