Increasing number of ethics probes rattles House Republicans

An increasing number of House Republicans are getting wrapped up in allegations of ethics violations ahead of the November elections, handing Democrats easy campaign fodder and putting the GOP in an unexpected bind. 

Republican leaders in the lower chamber pledged to run an ethically sound ship when they took control last year. But as the second session gets under way, nearly a dozen GOP lawmakers are being questions on a wide array of their financial dealings, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has not publicly admonished them.

ADVERTISEMENT
“The Speaker has always been clear that the American people expect members of Congress to be held to the highest ethical standards,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, when asked by The Hill whether the Speaker was concerned about ethics questions surrounding the Republicans. 

By next Monday the House Ethics Committee is slated to decide whether to formally investigate Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.). Moreover, allegations arose over this past weekend that Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) might have accepted illegal campaign donations, according to The New York Times. 

Additionally, there are the three Republicans — Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas), Buck McKeon (Calif.) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.) — who earlier this month were referred to the House Ethics Committee for taking part in Countrywide’s VIP mortgage program, aimed at gaining special favor from lawmakers.

Sessions serves as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), while Buchanan serves as the GOP reelection arm’s finance chairman. Grimm is one of the NRCC’s regional chairs.

All of these lawmakers have denied any wrongdoing.  

In the past, Boehner has been lauded by watchdogs for not tolerating ethics violations among House Republicans, as he was often seen to be the silent hand urging ethically challenged lawmakers such as former Reps. Chris Lee (N.Y.), Mark Souder (Ind.) and Vito Fossella (N.Y.) out of office. 

Ahead of the 2010 elections, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) acknowledged that the ethics troubles surrounding Republicans in 2006 had helped cost them the House, and pledged to maintain a “zero tolerance” policy for ethics violations if they took back control.

“As the Republicans emerge as the new governing majority, it is incumbent upon us to issue a zero tolerance policy that we understand there are reasons for us being fired in ’06 and ’08 [and] some of that had to do with ethics violations,” said Cantor in a 2010 interview with the National Review.  

Ethics issues have typically played a strong role in election seasons as both parties attempt to paint the other as ethically bankrupt. 

And with a mounting number of ethics issues surrounding House Republicans, Democrats — who are not without their own ethics troubles this Congress — are already trying to capitalize.  

“House Republicans are standing idly by while federal investigations and scandals mount against leading members of their own caucus,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

“Republicans pledged a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on ethics but after all these scandals, voters are going to send a forceful and unmistakable message: they have zero tolerance for scandal-plagued House Republicans,” Ferguson said.

The NRCC shot back. A spokesman pointed to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) pledge to “drain the swamp” of ethics violators when Democrats took the majority in 2006, and also to Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) as evidence that Democrats were more corrupt than Republicans. 

Rangel was censured by the House last year after an Ethics investigation and trial found him guilty on 12 counts. 

“It is laughable to hear ethical cries from the party that … continues to harbor a convicted tax evader in Charlie Rangel,” said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the NRCC. “More than four years after promising to drain the swamp, Nancy Pelosi is still wading in it.”

Among the other Republicans facing ethical scrutiny are: 

• Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), who is being investigated by the FBI, IRS, Miami-Dade Police Department’s public corruption unit, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement over allegations that he abused his former seat in Florida’s state House of Representatives for personal financial gain and repeatedly lied on financial disclosure forms. 

• Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who came under fire last year when a New York Times article raised questions of legality around his former company’s dealings. Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, said, “The substance of the Times' story has been thoroughly debunked, both by the paper's own retractions and scrutiny by other media outlets. It has not led to an investigation and any insinuation to the contrary is simply false.” 

• Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who is accused of owing $117,000 in child support to his ex-wife, which he did not report on his financial disclosure forms and, if true, would violate House rules. 

While the Ethics panel has not detailed the nature of its three-month preliminary probe into Buchanan, many have speculated that it involves his financial disclosure forms and questions around his staff and campaign finances. Buchanan pointed to the Federal Election Commission declining to press charges against him earlier this year as evidence of his innocence. 

A bevy of Democrats are under an ethics cloud as well, and the NRCC has taken every opportunity to send out email blasts highlighting each one. The most renowned is the case facing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is accused of helping to secure federal funding for a bank in which her husband owned stock. She has maintained her innocence.

This article was updated at 1:11 p.m. on Jan. 31.