Exclusive: House ethics office asks lobbyists for info on lawmakers

A House ethics office is demanding fundraising information from lobbyists on five Republicans and three Democrats, according to a document obtained by The Hill.  

Official watchdog is demanding fundraising information from lobbyists on five Republicans and three Democrats.The House Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) this month sent letters to officials on K Street requesting detailed information on the lawmakers, all of whom sit on the Financial Services Committee or the Ways and Means Committee.  

The letter seeks wide-ranging fundraising and campaign contribution data from lobbyists about their dealings with the eight legislators dating back to the beginning of last year.

The lawmakers are Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.).

It is unclear why the OCE is investigating these eight lawmakers, but two GOP members indicated the reason has to do with the financial regulatory reform bill that passed the House last year.

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Hensarling spokesman George Rasley stated in an e-mail, “While Congressman Hensarling has not been informed of a specific charge, he was recently notified by the Office of Congressional Ethics about a ‘preliminary review’ it is conducting of political contributions received between Dec. 2 and Dec. 11 of last year that a source unidentified to him claimed may have influenced his opposition to H.R. 4173.

“The congressman publicly opposed major provisions of this legislation for almost six months before the time in question, he co-authored an alternative months earlier, he voted against it in committee and he voted against it on the House floor.

“Congressman Hensarling categorically denies any implication of influence and looks forward to clearing up this false charge.”

Price also suggested the investigation involves the financial regulatory reform measure.

In a statement to The Hill on Monday afternoon, Price said, “My voting record and opposition to Washington bailouts has been consistent since day one under both the current and previous administrations. My opposition to the Democrat financial regulatory reform proposals is in concert with my belief that when Washington picks winners and losers, it is destructive to our economy and our freedom.

“The initiation of the preliminary review by the OCE to determine whether political contributions may have influenced my vote in favor of a smaller, more responsible government is without any merit whatsoever. Any and all individuals wishing to support my efforts for a more principled government do so with the understanding that my beliefs reflect the views of my constituents and my policy decisions are based on what’s in the best interests of my constituents and our country.”

Not one Republican voted for that bill, which is now being merged with a Senate companion measure. Most House Democrats, including Crowley, Pomeroy and Watt, voted for the legislation, which passed on Dec. 11, 2009.

The OCE investigation does not mean any of the eight lawmakers has done anything wrong. According to its website, the OCE launched 48 “preliminary review” probes during the 111th Congress through the first quarter of this year. Nearly half did not advance to the next stage of investigation.  

The OCE must contact members when it begins a preliminary review investigation.  

Matthew Harakal, Lee’s spokesman, referred to the probe as a “routine audit” and said his boss is happy to cooperate.

“We were contacted by the OCE about a routine audit it has begun regarding a bipartisan group of members,” Harakal said. “We were informed that the OCE has conducted similar audits in the past of groups of Democratic and Republican members. Chris believes strongly in accountability and is happy to comply with the OCE’s request.”

Brent Hall, a spokesman for Campbell, also called the investigation “routine” and confirmed that the OCE had notified Campbell about it.

“Our office has been approached along with many other House offices for a routine and preliminary review,” Hall said. “We are cooperating fully, and look forward to an expedient and favorable resolution.”

Brenden Timpe, a spokesman for Pomeroy, said, “The facts here show that Earl actually stood up to the big banks and Wall Street interests and voted for reform legislation that they opposed. Earl has always been a strong, independent fighter for the people of North Dakota.”

A Crowley spokesperson said, “Congressman Crowley has always complied with the letter and spirit of all rules regarding fundraising and standards of conduct.”

Lucas and Watt declined to comment. 

The OCE does not confirm or deny the existence of specific investigations and declined to comment.

Sources told The Hill that many lobbyists have received the letters, but it’s unclear exactly how many.

Most OCE probes are not made public. The OCE letter obtained by The Hill does not ask the recipient to keep the information confidential.

The Hill did not obtain the letter from the OCE.

 The OCE is governed by strict confidentiality requirements about the subjects and information involved in its investigations. But members of Congress, their aides and outside parties face no such requirement. The OCE follows policies similar to the U.S. criminal justice system, which requires prosecutors and judges to keep matters private, but allows defendants and others to speak to the media.

 The letter, signed by OCE Staff Director and General Counsel Leo Wise, requests the names and contact information of employees who attended any fundraising event or who made campaign contributions to the members.

The OCE wants the dates, times, locations, guest lists, programs and all files, correspondence, notes, e-mails or “any other documents” regarding fundraising events attended by employees who gave to the legislators during fundraising events from Jan. 1, 2009, to “the present time.”

 The ethics office requests all documents between the lobbyists and staff of the members, encompassing their district office, congressional or leadership political action committee aides. It specifically seeks instances of all files regarding the soliciting, encouraging, collecting and facilitating of campaign contributions to the members.

None of the eight members has previously been involved in ethics controversies.

The OCE states in its request letter that the probe is in the “preliminary review,” which is the first stage of investigation. According to the OCE website, preliminary review indicates there is “reasonable cause to believe allegations.”

 For this probe to begin, two of OCE’s six board members — one appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and one tapped by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) — had to submit a written request for it.

After 30 days of a preliminary review, the OCE must decide whether to dismiss the case or advance it to a second stage, which is defined as “probable cause to believe allegations.”

 The third stage, which would necessitate referral to the House ethics committee, is defined as “substantial reason to believe allegations.”

 The OCE initiated this preliminary review on May 24, according to its letter to K Street officials.

 It is difficult to find a common thread among the eight members the OCE is investigating.

 The subjects of the probe range from the left, such as Watt, to the conservative, including Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Price and Hensarling, a former RSC chairman.

 Pomeroy is the only one of the eight who is considered politically vulnerable this fall.

Most, but not all, of the eight have political action committees.

The OCE, which was established in 2008 as part of the Democrats’ effort to clean up the ethics and public image of the House, has jurisdiction only over members of the lower chamber.

 But it can refer information to the Department of Justice, as it did last month in its probe of lawmakers and the PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying shop.

 Therefore, the responses that K Street officials give to the OCE could be used against them at a later date.

 Entities that received the letter are not obliged to provide the requested information. But OCE makes clear in its letter that it “may draw a negative inference from any refusal to cooperate.” It adds that it may note a refusal to cooperate in any referral to the House ethics committee.

The OCE’s Wise states in his letter that the ethics office may make more requests for information, and asks recipients to detail any information being withheld and to provide the reason it is not being handed over.

 Complying with the request will cost lobbying groups thousands of dollars because of the request’s broad scope and the need to consult attorneys who are ethics specialists.

 Some members are upset with the ethics rules, noting that some OCE findings are published even if the House panel disagrees with them.

Frustrated members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) recently introduced legislation that would revamp the OCE, mandating that the OCE’s probes would not be made public unless the House ethics panel agrees with its recommendations.

Watt, a member of the CBC, co-sponsored that bill four days after the OCE launched its probe.

In a recent meeting with CBC members, Pelosi has suggested she is open to changing the rules at the start of the next Congress.

 The OCE was created in a 207-206 vote more than two years ago in a roll call that fell mostly along party lines. Crowley, Pomeroy and Watt voted in favor while Campbell, Lucas, Price and Hensarling voted against the measure. Lee was not in Congress at the time.

This article was updated at 5:50 p.m., 6:54 p.m. and 8:32 p.m.