Without ethics enforcement, it’s open season in Washington

Enforcement agencies in Washington have a message for members of Congress: it’s open season. 

Looking for a luxury hunting trip to get away from it all?  Get out the campaign credit card.  Want to treat your family to an overseas trip at your contributors’ expense?  Feel free.  Inclined to accept an expensive gift from a lobbyist?  Don’t worry about it.  The worst thing that could happen is that you might have to pay back the money—if you get caught.  With the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and the House Ethics Committee failing again and again to punish official wrongdoing, what do you have to lose? 

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Last week, the House Ethics Committee found Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) broke the law by accepting improper gifts and using his campaign money for personal expenses, including lavish hunting trips.  The punishment?  The committee made him pay back the money and issued a mildly worded note of reproval.  Earlier this year, the FEC closed its investigation into former Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) without penalty, even after concluding he likely used campaign money for personal expenses.  Thus goes the breakdown of accountability.

Young and Andrews have repeatedly appeared on the Most Corrupt list published by my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Young was the subject of a federal public corruption investigation by DOJ’s Office of Public Integrity, and hundreds of pages of related documents obtained by CREW detailed the congressman’s greed and corruption, including, among other things, his use of campaign funds for personal expenses and trips and his failure to disclose gifts.  The documents show that despite the overwhelming evidence against the congressman, DOJ dropped the investigation because it could not guarantee a conviction.  The agency punted to the House Ethics Committee instead of filing charges.

The House Ethics Committee’s investigation, too, produced eye-popping evidence.  In one egregious example, Young took a hunting trip he claimed was a campaign fundraising event.  The committee’s investigation, however, turned up no evidence that any trip participant was sent an invitation to a campaign event, and no attendee testified that a campaign event occurred.  Nevertheless, the committee bafflingly concluded it lacked enough evidence Young had acted in bad faith and ordered him only to pay the money back without additional penalty.

Clearly, members of Congress get more free passes than ordinary people. Take Andrews, for example.  CREW asked the FEC to investigate Andrews, who spent more than $30,000 from his campaign committee and his leadership PAC to take his entire family to Scotland to attend a wedding, among other questionable expenditures.  The FEC decided to exercise its discretion to drop the matter. Andrews paid the money back.  No harm, no foul.

Most people who are found to have embezzled funds face serious consequences. Only members of Congress can walk away with, at worst, a mildly critical letter.

In case after case, those responsible for enforcing federal law and other ethics and campaign finance rules let violators off the hook.  Laughably, the House Ethics Committee now even cites its prior inaction against other members as precedent for greater inaction. The committee referred to its outrageous decision not to penalize former Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) for impermissibly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees spent on her behalf as a reason not to penalize Young. In other words, the committee defined down its standards and penalties based on prior fecklessness.

What is the point of having a House Ethics Committee and public integrity divisions at government agencies if such blatant ethical and legal violations go unpunished?

Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.