Campaigns use secretive ethics process as weapon against opponents

Congressional campaigns are using the House and Senate ethics process as a weapon to discredit their political opponents by filing complaints that can be used in attack ads.

Innocence or guilt isn’t the prime concern. Both Republicans and Democrats know allegations of ethical misconduct can be damning in campaigns, especially at a time when Congress’s public approval rating is near an all-time low.

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Nearly a dozen congressional hopefuls and political operatives this cycle have sent complaints to the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and the Senate Ethics Committee in hopes of casting, at the very least, a shadow of impropriety over their rivals.

It’s guilt by association, campaign strategists and ethics experts say, and made easier by the secretive ethics procedures on Capitol Hill. As the panels silently probe the allegations — making no public statements throughout — members are left to defend their reputations while remaining exposed to easy attacks from their challengers.

“In this environment, the mere fact that you’re under investigation could create a cloud,” said Kenneth Gross, an ethics expert with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom.

“And it may be unfair, because you may have done absolutely nothing wrong, and your opponent ends up using it — particularly on the House side when you’re up for reelection every two years, it seems impossible to prevent news of an investigation becoming a factor in a close race.”

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), for example, is in a tight race against local businessman and Republican Randy Altschule.

Altschule lost to Bishop in 2010 by fewer than 600 votes. This time around, one of Altschule’s supporters, Robert Creighton, has filed a complaint with the OCE to try to make the Republican’s road to Washington, D.C., a little easier.

“I am very much in favor of Mr. Altschule,” said Creighton, a local town councilman. “I might not have done it, but I don’t particularly think too highly of Mr. Bishop to begin with, and I do favor the other fellow, Altschule. And because the race last time was so close, I really thought it should be something brought to the attention of the House.

“I’m telling you flat-out, I would do anything I could do to promote [Altschule’s] candidacy, but this other issue was one of principle.”

Creighton — who is in regular touch with Altschule’s campaign — has accused Bishop of engaging in a quid pro quo agreement with a constituent who asked for the lawmaker’s help in obtaining a fireworks permit. In exchange, Creighton says Bishop asked the constituent for a campaign donation.

Bishop’s camp has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and says the constituent had previously committed to donate to the campaign.

Altschule, meanwhile, has been hammering away at Bishop’s reputation, launching the website Investigatebishop.com. The result has been tangible. At a local debate last month, several of the questions from the audience focused on the ethics charges against Bishop. All the while, the OCE has to remain silent on the status of any probe it might be conducting in order to protect the identity, and reputation, of the member.

Bishop is not alone. Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) have also been plagued by ethics accusations filed by their political opponents.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party has filed two complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee in an attempt to unseat Brown.

The latest complaint alleges that Brown did not fully reveal the amount of work he did as a lawyer for clients in 2009; rules require him to disclose anything more than $5,000 in compensation. And in May, Democrats filed a complaint alleging that one of Brown’s Senate staffers violated ethics rules by working in her official capacity while filming a campaign event.

Brown’s office has firmly rejected the charges. They say the senator’s challenger, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, is wasting taxpayer dollars by attempting to distract voters from more serious issues, like the economy. Brown’s camp also says it had cleared the video activity with the Ethics panel prior to filming.

But Democrats in Massachusetts have hit Brown repeatedly over the issue in attempts to call his integrity into question. Throughout, the Senate Ethics Committee has remained silent.

Republican Linda McMahon’s campaign filed a complaint in September with the OCE alleging that Murphy violated the chamber’s rules by leveraging his position as a member of Congress to get a better rate from a local bank on his home mortgage.

The interest rate Murphy was given at the time — 4.99 percent — was on par with what other recipients were receiving.

McMahon’s camp has criticized Murphy for not being more forthright with his mortgage records while painting him as untrustworthy.

The OCE receives hundreds of ethical inquiries and complaints from private citizens each year, but it opts to launch preliminary probes into only a fraction of them. Of the roughly 150 such communications from the public so far in 2012, it has opened initial cases on only 10 members or staffers. The numbers suggest that many of the complaints the OCE receives are not sound enough to investigate, and yet it does not stop a political rival from touting the fact that he or she has filed the complaint.

Democrats set up the OCE after winning back the majority in 2006 on a pledge to “drain the swamp” and reform the ethics process. The office was supposed to grant a greater level of transparency to the House Ethics Committee while protecting the identities of the lawmakers who are investigated.