Black Caucus defends Rep. Watt amid House ethics controversy

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on Wednesday defended a colleague who is involved in an ethics controversy.

They also expressed concern about how the House Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is operating, making their case for changes to the lower chamber’s ethics process.

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CBC lawmakers say Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), one of eight lawmakers the OCE is scrutinizing information on, has been a leader on ethics-related issues. 

They say Watt has advised fellow members on legal and ethics matters.

“Of all the members of Congress, I know who would not be one of those individuals who would be caught up in anything — it would be Mel Watt,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a member of Watt’s class of 1993.

The OCE is scrutinizing an amendment to the financial regulatory reform bill that passed the House last year, The Hill reported Wednesday. Watt offered the amendment and then withdrew it within two days of a fundraiser held in his honor, according to a review of public documents.

Details of a probe emerged after the OCE asked lobbyists for detailed fundraising information on five Republicans and three Democrats, including Watt and Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Tom Price (R-Ga.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Early Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). All but two of them sit on the Financial Services Committee, and all held fundraisers within a few days of the final House vote on the financial-services regulatory bill last December.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), a member of the CBC, has offered legislation that would revamp the OCE. 

“Mel Watt is above and beyond reproach,” Fudge said. “I can’t imagine that anyone would question Mel or say that he would do something that was a violation of the rules. It is mind-boggling to me.”

Asked if she thought there was a legal way for the OCE to maintain confidentiality during an investigation, Fudge said, “That goes to the point of the legislation. There is no confidentiality. What happens is when this story gets home, all people read is that they are under investigation — they don’t know OCE from anything else. They are tried in the court of public opinion.” 

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who is an attorney, likewise praised Watt and said for “people to have confidence in OCE, there must be confidentiality.”

"The outside (OCE) investigation as it pertains to Mel and probably others is just an absurdity," said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). "If anybody violated ethics I would stack Mel up dead last of 435 [House members]." Hastings was impeached by the House in 1988.

In a statement this week, Watt said, “It’s unfortunate that this has been leaked to the press and that could leave the impression that there has been some impropriety … I am fully confident that the investigation will conclude that there has been no violation of either the letter or the spirit of any laws or ethical standards.”

House members on Wednesday expressed frustration with fallout politicians face when the media reports on the OCE’s preliminary investigations, which do not necessarily indicate any wrongdoing. Nearly half the 48 “preliminary reviews” launched during this Congress through the first quarter of this year did not advance to the next stage.

The OCE follows policies similar to the U.S. criminal justice system, which requires prosecutors and judges to keep matters private but cannot prevent defendants and witnesses from speaking to the media.

Several ethics attorneys contacted for this article, however, said the OCE is making itself vulnerable to criticism by blanketing K Street with letters requesting fundraising information about eight members of Congress in a town where information is power.

Stefan Passantino, an ethics attorney at McKenna Long & Aldridge, said there is little OCE officials can do to guarantee protection for members against leaks to the press from outside groups they have contacted.

“They can’t protect members from outside people talking amongst themselves and to the press any more than the Justice Department can,” he said.

“The only thing that OCE can do to minimize the damage that can be done is to be more careful in the manner that they are seeking the information before they cast such a wide net all across town,” Passantino said.

But unlike the Justice Department and congressional ethics panels, which can take as much time as they need to pursue investigations, the OCE faces time constraints in its probes that make it difficult to contact members and outside groups slowly. The OCE has 30 days to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether allegations warrant further investigation. If the OCE determines that they do, it can open a second-stage review for 45 more days, with a possible extension of 14 days. Afterward, it must recommend a dismissal or further review by the ethics committee.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), a former member of the ethics committee and a former prosecutor, said the OCE cannot force outside groups, members and witnesses to keep quiet, but it can at least ask them to do so.

“There are ways to do it,” he said. “I didn’t have one leak from a grand juror” while a prosecutor.

OCE did not comment for this article. 

From his experience representing clients on ethics issues, Passantino said it’s the policy of the Justice Department and the Senate and House ethics committees to request that outside groups, witnesses and members keep the investigation confidential. But other ethics experts disputed that assertion. Including a request to keep matters private could open a legal minefield and the leave the OCE vulnerable to charges of infringing on the rights to counsel and free speech.