Will GOP leader escape ethics penalty?

Greg Nash

Good government groups do not expect the House Ethics Committee to come down hard on Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), despite a finding by an independent watchdog that she may have misused public and campaign funds.

The Ethics Committee last week announced it was extending its review of allegations against the House Republican conference chairwoman, but it declined to appoint a special subcommittee to conduct a deeper probe of the case.

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The panel is following up on a report by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) that concluded there was “substantial reason” to believe McMorris Rodgers improperly spent official resources on campaign activities, inappropriately mixed public and campaign funds during an internal leadership race in 2012 and improperly paid a political consultant with campaign funds for his work in her congressional office.

The case centers on the occasionally blurry lines between official district work and campaign activities when lawmakers return home in the weeks before an election, and for that reason, experts on House rules say it is unlikely that the Ethics Committee, which is made up of fellow lawmakers, will hit McMorris Rodgers with penalties or sanctions.

The OCE faulted McMorris Rodgers’s office for paying for trips to Washington State before the 2012 election with taxpayer money even though many of the activities in her home district were related to her re-election campaign. In several cases, her staffers could not produce records documenting official events and activities that they said they also performed to justify the official expense.

“It’s our view that, unfortunately, this kind of thing is fairly common,” said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause. “It happens in probably many other congressional offices.”

The Ethics Committee is comprised of lawmakers from both parties who run their own campaigns every two years – a reality that may lead them to adopt the attitude that “those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the campaign legal center.

To Boyle and McGehee, the case underscores the difficulty in trusting lawmakers to police themselves.

“It is very hard for members of Congress to sit in judgment of their peers,” Boyle said.

McMorris Rodgers, through her attorney, has rebutted the OCE findings and voiced confidence that the Ethics Committee will clear her of wrongdoing.

The congresswoman told the OCE she regretted holding a campaign debate prep session in her congressional office, and her lawyer, Elliot Berke, wrote in a letter to the committee that she had tightened up her office protocol for staffers to keep better records when they take leave to work for campaigns.

The Ethics Committee review is still in “the early stages,” according to a person familiar with the inquiry, and while McMorris Rodgers has produced documents for the committee, she has yet to sit for an interview.

Lawmakers have complained about the five-year-old OCE, which they say is overzealous. But good government groups generally give its findings the benefit of the doubt, saying its work is thorough and brings to light activities that have historically been ignored on Capitol Hill.

“The OCE has compiled a very respectable and reasonable record at being able to separate the wheat from the chafe,” McGehee said.

The leaders of the Ethics Committee, Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and ranking Democrat Linda Sanchez (Calif.), said in their statement Monday that they would not making further statements on the McMorris Rodgers case, and the announcement “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.”