Black caucus criticizes ethics probe of trip to the Caribbean

An investigation into a trip taken by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is triggering a backlash against the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s signature ethics proposal.

CBC members, frustrated at what they perceive as an accusation by a conservative group that’s been blown out of proportion, last week formed a working group to look at taking on the 2006 resolution that created the OCE.

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“We might need to revisit that law,” a source said.

While the dealings of both the OCE and the House ethics committee are confidential, the OCE appears to have referred allegations about a trip to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten to the full House ethics committee, which has begun investigating.

In a CBC meeting last week, members complained that the office doesn’t have enough minority staffers, and that the investigators “acted like they were with the FBI.”

The task force, composed mostly of CBC members who are lawyers, is being headed by Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who last week declined to comment. A CBC spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.

It’s not clear whether CBC members want to change or abolish the OCE. CBC sources said it is premature to say what the working group’s goal might be.

Leo Wise, the staff director of the OCE, would not confirm any investigation, but he disputed accusations that his organization lacks diversity and that its investigators are rude.

The OCE has three “investigative counsels,” Wise said. One is a woman; one is Arab-American and a third is an African-American who has been hired but hasn’t started.

“We’re very much committed to a diverse staff,” Wise said, adding: “The staff has never received any complaint. In fact, we’ve been complimented on our professionalism and discretion.”

The OCE is to give a briefing about its process on Friday to CBC members, Wise said. It is to be conducted by the co-chairmen of OCE’s governing board, former Reps. David Skaggs and Porter Goss. Wise said the office regularly holds briefings with members interested in learning about the office, because it is still new.

The independent ethics office was a keystone of Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) promise to “drain the swamp” when Democrats took over Congress in the wake of a series of Republican scandals, such as GOP members dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. There was widespread criticism that the ethics committee had been ineffective at policing members’ conduct.

The OCE, which has a review board of former members, can accept formal complaints from outside groups and private citizens and can refer those complaints to the House ethics committee.

It has never been popular with the CBC, whose members were among the most outspoken opponents of Pelosi’s proposal. Critics feared that partisan groups could use the office to launch politically motivated ethics investigations. Now, some CBC members think that’s just what’s happened.

They think allegations surrounding the Caribbean trip pale in comparison to other ethics situations, such as the investigation into connections between lawmakers and the PMA Group, a lobbying firm. The ethics committee recently acknowledged that it is investigating those connections, but there is also a federal criminal probe. They note that Pelosi sought to block votes in the House demanding an ethics investigation into PMA, which had close ties to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a close Pelosi ally.

“In an environment where there’s allegations of clear criminality, investigating a trip to a Caribbean island is a bit odd,” said an aide to a CBC lawmaker. “What’s the charge, that they spent too much time at the pool? That’s ridiculous.”

The Hill reported earlier this month that the House ethics committee is reviewing allegations that lawmakers attended a conference on the island last year that was paid for by corporate sponsors, and thus was in violation of House rules. Staffers from the OCE had previously contacted aides to lawmakers who attended.

The accusations have been pressed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group. The group’s president, Peter Flaherty, traveled to the conference and found evidence of corporate sponsorship.

It’s not clear whether the panel has launched a full investigation into the Caribbean trip or whether the committee has expanded an ongoing probe into House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) personal finances and fundraising activities to include his trip. The panel usually announces the formal launch of an investigation after taking a preliminary look into the matter. Rangel is one of six members to have attended.

House rules imposed by Democrats after they took back the House in 2006 bar lawmakers from accepting travel lasting more than two days if corporations that “employ or retain a registered lobbyist” are underwriting or organizing any part of them. They were designed to prevent trips like the now-infamous golf junket to Scotland that Abramoff organized.

Flaherty said he never filed a complaint with the OCE or the House ethics committee until he’d been contacted by the ethics committee itself. Prior to that, the allegations had appeared only in articles in the New York Post and The Hill.

“I’m a little surprised by their reaction,” Flaherty said. “It’s pretty clear they violated the House rules.”

He said he was also surprised that the CBC formed a group to look at the OCE, because lawmakers have insisted that the CBC was not a sponsor of the trip.

He also dismissed the idea that the investigation of the trip is driven by partisanship.

“The goods I brought back speak for themselves. Photographs aren’t Republican or Democratic,” Flaherty said.



Susan Crabtree contributed to this article.