Ethics complaint filed against Boehner

A watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint against Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for allegedly violating federal law and House rules when he designated an outside counsel to defend cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed the complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) on Tuesday, writing that Boehner violated the Antideficiency Act by retaining the services of Bancroft PLLC to continue defending at least 10 legal cases. 

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The 12-page complaint also states that by breaking the federal law Boehner allegedly violated House rules by failing to “uphold the Constitution, laws, and legal regulations of the United States and all governments therein and never be a party to their evasion.”

A spokesman for Boehner said the complaint was unfounded and called it “off-base and stupid” because it makes CREW look like it is targeting a Republican.

“This ‘complaint’ is off-base and stupid to the point that it creates the appearance of partisanship by CREW,” said Michael Steel in a statement.

“The Speaker expects any cost to be recouped from the Obama Administration Justice Department, which should be defending the law in court. The ‘anti-deficiency act’ has nothing to do with this situation, as anyone with a basic grasp of the law knows.”

Earlier this year the Obama administration announced that the Justice Department was planning to stop defending cases involving DOMA, which defines the federal guidelines of legal marriage as between a man and a woman. The White House said it felt the law veered towards discriminating against gay and lesbian couples.

Soon after, Boehner asked whether the Office of the General Counsel could take on the defense of the existing DOMA cases, but finding its personnel and financial resources limited, the congressional legal office said it would have to retain an outside counsel.

The Office of the General Counsel’s total budget for fiscal 2011 is $1.4 million. The cost of the Bancroft law firm’s services has been estimated to reach up to $500,000, which would over-obligate the Office of the General Counsel’s budget and directly violate the Antideficiency Act, according to CREW’s complaint.

The Antideficiency Act prohibits “making or authorizing an expenditure from, or creating or authorizing an obligation under, any appropriation or fund in excess of the amount available in the appropriation or fund unless authorized by law,” according to a summary by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“In an era of fiscal austerity and how many complaints there are about government overspending, I am surprised that Boehner would be willing to spend money he doesn’t have,” Melanie Sloan, the executive director for CREW, told The Hill.

A Republican leadership aide told The Hill that the Antideficiency Act would only be violated if the House was left without any money to pay for the costs of an outside legal counsel, because it spent all of its funding.

“That is simply not going to happen,” the aide said, speaking on background. The aide added that money was going to be reprogrammed within the House’s operating budget to make sure the law was not violated.

The House’s top three Republicans on the 5-member bipartisan legal advisory group voted to give the Office of the General Counsel authority to defend the DOMA cases, while the top two Democrats voted against the move.