Eight lawmakers may soon know if ethics probes will proceed

Eight lawmakers may soon know the results of an ethics investigation into possible links between fundraising and their votes on the Wall Street reform bill.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) met Friday to determine whether the investigation unearthed enough evidence to warrant further review by the full ethics committee, two House aides told The Hill.

The board must vote on whether to refer the case to the ethics committee or whether to end it completely. Whatever the decision, the OCE’s final report must be sent to the members who were investigated.

The OCE cannot disclose information about open cases, and a spokesman for the office declined to comment about whether the board made a decision Friday.

In mid-June, The Hill obtained a letter from the OCE to lobbyists asking for fundraising information on five Republicans and three Democrats who are members of the Financial Services or Ways and Means committees.

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.).

Pomeroy is the only member in the probe who is facing a tough reelection fight. North Dakota state Rep. Rick Berg is leading Pomeroy 53 to 44 percent in the latest Rasmussen survey.

His office did not respond to an e-mail asking whether he would like to see the investigation come to a conclusion soon.

The OCE investigation began in late May and advanced from a preliminary review to a second stage in late June, allowing 45 more days and a possible 14-day extension for completion. In order to reach the second stage, the OCE had to determine there was probable cause to believe the allegations were true. The preliminary review required only reasonable cause to proceed.

In order for the OCE to recommend further investigation by the ethics committee, the OCE must determine there is a “substantial reason to believe the allegations.”

Not one House Republican voted for the financial services bill, which was passed Dec. 11.

All of the members under investigation have denied any suggestion their votes were tied to fundraisers that their campaigns held in the week leading up to the December vote.

The OCE is particularly interested in an amendment to the financial services bill that was proposed by Watt and opposed by Campbell.

The amendment would have placed auto dealers under the oversight of a financial industry watchdog, a plan supported by several consumer advocacy groups. Watt withdrew the amendment within two days of a fundraiser held in his honor.

Campbell, a former Saab dealer who worked in the auto industry for 25 years, favored an exemption for auto dealers and strongly opposed Watts’ amendment.

Campbell owns six buildings and rents them out to auto dealers; last year he collected between $600,000 and $6 million in rent on the properties, according to Common Cause. Campbell also has taken more than $170,000 in campaign contributions from auto dealers during his six years in Congress.

He held two fundraisers just days before Watt withdrew the amendment. One of the events, held  Dec. 8., was at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Capitol Hill Club. The next day, he held a wine tasting in California.

On Dec. 10, 2008, Campbell voted “present” on the so-called auto bailout bill, and said he did so because of the conflict of interest with his rental properties.

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 before opposing it.

“I don’t have an interest in an operating dealership, and I did not believe I had any conflict of interest at all,” he told The Hill. “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.”