House lawmaker says he’s baffled by Office of Congressional ethics probe

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) says he is baffled by a House ethics investigation that is asking for fundraising information on him and seven other lawmakers.

In an interview this week, Campbell said, “I’ve got to tell you, I almost think it’s semi-random. I can’t figure it out.” 

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Campbell’s comments come as the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) faces a deadline this week of whether to advance its probe of members’ votes and fundraisers days before the House approved its Wall Street reform bill. 

While there are pieces of the investigation that are publicly known, other aspects remain a mystery.

“There isn’t a single Republican or Democrat either in this OCE thing or out of it that changed their vote [on financial reform],” Campbell said. “Not only between the committee votes and the floor, but in the markups. All of our positions on this bill were staked out months earlier. There were no surprises. There were no changes, no turns and no surprises. It’s almost like it’s random.”

Most Democrats, including the three in the probe, voted for the underlying bill, while all Republicans opposed it. 

The Hill reported last week that the OCE is focusing on an amendment offered by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) that was withdrawn within two days of a fundraiser held in his honor.

Watt is among the eight lawmakers the OCE is reviewing.

The other lawmakers OCE has asked lobbyists for fundraising information on include Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Tom Price (R-Ga.), Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.).

Hensarling has said the OCE has specifically requested information on fundraising events between Dec. 2 and Dec. 11, 2009. The House passed its Wall Street reform bill on Dec. 11.

Lucas, Campbell, Lee and Watt held a fundraiser on Dec. 9, 2009, records show, while Pomeroy, Crowley and Price held fundraisers a day later. Price’s fundraiser, held at the Capitol Hill Club, was titled the Financial Services Luncheon and featured as a “special guest” Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Financial Services Committee. 

Watt last fall sponsored an amendment that would have included auto dealers under the oversight of a proposed financial-industry watchdog. Without Watt’s amendment, franchised auto dealers would be exempted.

The North Carolina Democrat withdrew the amendment on Dec. 11, two days after a fundraiser for him at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

At that time, Watt agreed with Campbell to resolve the matter at a later date. Campbell, a former auto executive, favors the exemption.

All eight lawmakers have denied wrongdoing, and at least a couple of the members are puzzled. 

Lucas, who said he has provided fundraising data to the ethics office, told the Tulsa World he does not know what OCE is looking for.

“I don’t have a clue,’’ he said.

OCE does not comment on its investigations.

According to its bylaws, the OCE must decide by Wednesday whether its “preliminary review” of this investigation will advance into a second stage or be dismissed.

The stakes are high for the lawmakers and the OCE. A dismissal would likely trigger criticism from the legislators because their names have been tarnished by the leaking of an OCE letter to The Hill last week. But advancing it to a second-stage review would be worse for the legislators because such a move would suggest “probable cause to believe allegations,” according to the OCE website. The third phase would be referral to the House ethics committee.

OCE’s pending decision comes as some Congressional Black Caucus members have proposed legislation to revamp the ethics office. Government watchdog groups have lambasted the CBC bill, introduced by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).

None of the eight members has been ensnared in ethics controversies before, and all have solid reputations. Campbell is a proponent of earmark reforms. Hensarling was an Eagle Scout. CBC members, meanwhile, have strongly defended Watt as a member with high integrity.

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

Campbell said he has been extremely careful in dealing with ethics issues since coming to Congress. He said he has twice had to consult the House ethics committee on whether to recuse himself from legislative activities because of his connections to the auto industry. 

Campbell, who worked in the industry for over 25 years, was the president and CEO of Campbell Automotive Group. In 1990, he became CEO of Saturn of Orange County, Calif. In 1999, he was the chairman and CEO of Saab in Orange County.

On Dec. 10, 2008, Campbell voted “present” on the so-called auto bailout, formally known as the Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act. Campbell’s 2008 and 2010 financial disclosure forms reflect that he is the landlord of over $5 million worth of property. 

Campbell told The Hill, “I own real estate. I do not own any car dealerships. I haven’t since 2003. I have no interests in any operating car dealerships. I do own seven pieces of commercial real estate — of property — four of those tenants are General Motors. When the auto bailout bill came up, I called [the House] ethics [committee] and said, ‘Can I vote on this or not?’ and they said, ‘Yes, you can.’ ”

Still, Campbell voted present, telling The Hill, “In my personal opinion, I had a conflict of interest relative to this vote and I shouldn’t vote on it.” 

When the issue of the auto dealership exemption came up during the Financial Services Committee markup in October and in December of 2009, Campbell said he checked again with the House ethics panel.

“I don’t have an interest in an operating dealership and I did not believe I had any conflict of interest at all,” he said. “The difference [was] between bailing out an auto company by name — the auto bailout was only GM and Chrysler — versus a bill that could impact the operation of 20,000 businesses across the country in which I have no direct interest … I felt there was a difference between those two circumstances.” 

As he spoke on the car dealer amendment during the December 2009 floor discussion as Watt announced the withdrawal of his amendment, Campbell said “a number of suggestions” Watt made were now in the bill. 

“There is broad agreement in this House that automobile dealers, in the normal course of their business, do not lend money and are not financial institutions and should not be subject to the additional regulation of the CFPA [the Consumer Financial Protection Act]. If, however, they do lend money and act like financial institutions, then they will be subject. That’s what this bill says. It is the right thing to say and I think we have reached a good conclusion on this,” Campbell said. 

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said, “It is no great surprise that the House ethics committee would give the thumbs-up. That’s basically been their attitude for too many years: ‘Just tell us what you want to do and we’ll figure out a way to help you do it.’ That pretty much characterizes it. That’s where the Office of Congressional Ethics has been so important.” 

The language was tackled on Tuesday in a House-Senate conference on the financial regulatory reform bill. 

Campbell is scheduled to hold two auto-related fundraisers in the coming days: one at the Ritz Laguna Niguel as part of the Laguna Beach Weekend & Auto Show on Friday and another on Saturday. 

Campbell has been one of the top recipients of political action committee money from auto and dealership interests. During the 2006 campaign cycle, Campbell was the No. 1 recipient in the House of car-dealership contributions. For the 2008 cycle he was second overall. From 2005 to 2010, he received a total of $239,350 from the auto industry, including $81,000 from auto industry-related political action committees. In October 2009, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that Campbell has received over $170,000 in campaign contributions from auto dealers.



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