Ethics panel speeds pace, caseload

The House ethics committee has started investigating 15 new cases of alleged misconduct so far this year and continued probing 11 cases held over from last year, according to a new semi-annual report the panel released Friday.

Only two of the new cases are publicly known, investigations into two trips to the Caribbean taken by several CBC members, and review of allegations involving links between campaign contributions from PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm whose offices were raided by the FBI earlier this year, and its clients and earmarks lawmakers steered to its clients.  

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In both cases, the ethics committee issued releases acknowledging the investigations.

During the first half of the year, the committee received six referrals from the Office of Congressional Ethics, the new independent body formed last year to help the House police lawmakers. Of those six, one OCE referral was actually a recommendation to dismiss undisclosed charges against an anonymous lawmaker or staffer. The other five related to the Caribbean trips.

Multiple ethics charges against Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.)  are among the 11 cases continued from last year that have yet to be resolved.  Rangel requested an ethics committee probe after media reports that he failed to pay taxes on villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, used congressional letterhead to solicit donations to a private education center bearing his name and violated New York rental laws by occupying four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicted that the panel would finish its work on Rangel’s investigation by the end of last year, but new allegations surfaced after she made the prediction and the panel has yet to issue a final verdict on Rangel’s activities.

The ethics committee also completed four investigative cases, two of which dealt with minor infractions and required little to no action on the part of the panel. A change to ethics rules passed in 2007 requires the committee to either empanel an investigative subcommittee or review the allegations and submit a report to the House describing its reasons for not doing so no later than 30 days after a member is indicted or charged with any crime.

One of cases the panel disposed with involved the arrest of five lawmakers in late April during a protest outside the Sudanese embassy. The panel found that the members, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (Minn.), Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), John Lewis (Ga.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), and Donna Edwards (Md.), each paid a $100 fine for crossing a police line, declining to empanel an investigative subcommittee.

The committee also concluded that further inquiry was unwarranted after Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) faced a misdemeanor charge for operating a motor vehicle with an expired license and paid the associated fine.

The two other matters that were resolved were not publicly disclosed.

The semi-annual report and the summaries of the committees activities is a break from the past when the committee’s activities were largely cloaked in secrecy until the end of a Congressional session, when it disclosed unfinished business and provided some limited accounts of its activities. It also serves to demonstrate the volume of requests the panel receives from members’ offices.

The report also fulfills a pledge that the panel, operating under Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), its ranking member, will be more transparent when possible about its activities and more responsive to requests for advice and clearances from members’ offices.

In the report, addressed to Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), the committee said it had recently set a goal of completing response to written requests for advice within two weeks of an office request and “has made significant progress toward providing the timeliness of responses for formal advice.”

To that end, so far this year the panel has issued 311 advisory opinions out of 357 requests from members offices and responded to 848 requests for travel advice and clearances out of 921 requests.

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The committee has dramatically increased its turnaround time since hiring a new staff director, Blake Chisam, in late April and adding additional staffers since then. From January to the end of April, the panel completed nearly 40 percent of requests for advisory opinions and travel clearances within two weeks of receiving them. In May and June, the committee completed 80 percent of requests within two weeks. Before that time, the panel was hindered by the previous staff director’s departure, as well as by the death of former Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) late last year.

The report contains other interesting details about the ethics committee’s work. For instance, the panel has a poor record thus far of training House employees about ethics rules. Only 2,861 of 10,553 House employees have received the required training as of the end of June. The panel has held 34 targeted briefings for individual offices and plans 20 additional training briefings.

The committee appears to be trying to address the lack of staff training, noting in the report that it is “in the process of updating its online training materials and has put into place systems for monitoring its online and enforcing compliance with the House’s training requirements.”

The panel has received 2,876 phone calls from offices and 813 e-mails this year, according to the report. Independent auditors have reviewed 1,972 financial-disclosure reports that members and some staffers are required to file each year; committee staff have reviewed another 972 financial disclosure reports. There are 988 of these reports the panel has yet to review. The panel has yet to receive reports from 547 members and aides.