Watchdog comes back to bite Democrats

Senior Democrats are taking shots at the House’s new ethics watchdog, which has come back to bite some caucus members a year after Democratic leaders created it.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) acknowledged a growing number of concerns about the Office of Congressional Ethics’s (OCE) record and predicted a coming public clash over its activities.

“A lot of people have been raising concerns [about the OCE], and I support them,” Clyburn said. “At some point in the not-so-distant future, these concerns will have to be addressed.”

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Clyburn’s terse comments are surprisingly strong from a member of the Democratic leadership.

The OCE, an independent ethics board made up mostly of former members of Congress, was the brainchild of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who pushed for an added layer of ethics oversight after Democrats won the majority in 2006. She succeeded in ramming legislation creating the OCE through the House despite serious opposition within her party.

As a Democratic leader, Clyburn voted in favor of the OCE, but then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) appeared to buttonhole the most members.

Resentment over Pelosi’s drive to create the extra layer of ethics scrutiny has lingered ever since.

“It was a mistake,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said flatly. “Congress has a long and rich history of overreacting to a crisis.”

Cleaver, a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member who voted against creating the OCE, was referring to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Democrats used the controversy to impugn the GOP for creating a culture of corruption when it controlled Congress and the White House.

“The truth of the matter is — everything Jack Abramoff did was against the law and many people involved in that scandal have gone to jail,” Cleaver continued.

Cleaver is most concerned about the ability of the OCE to launch an investigation based on media reports or an anonymous complaint. The ethics committee can initiate investigations from media reports as well, but a member must file a formal public complaint to require the ethics committee to launch a probe.

A significant number of members on both sides of the aisle were wary of handing any power to monitor members’ activities over to a group of non-lawmakers, and the OCE’s record so far has confirmed their worst fears, they argue.

The OCE is charged with reviewing suspected ethics rules violations and complaints and making recommendations to the full ethics committee for further investigation and action. Its proponents argue that it is needed to fix a broken, self-policing, members-only ethics committee, which rarely initiated investigations unless compelled to do so by a formal complaint from another member or via intense public scrutiny.

The committee has 45 days after receiving a recommendation from the OCE to review the matter before it must publicize the OCE’s report and recommendations. The ethics panel also has the option of extending that period an additional 45 days.

This transparency measure was included in an attempt to provide more outside accountability and prevent the ethics committee from becoming a black hole for complaints and ethics allegations, but it has become a sore point for some members who argue that it is tarnishing members’ reputations before the ethics committee has a chance to review the accusations.

Tensions have run high in recent weeks as founding CBC member Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has faced increased scrutiny.

Three years after promising to drain the swamp in Washington and winning the majority, Pelosi has seen editorial boards across the country call for one of the most prominent members of Congress to step down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

The main charges against Rangel, one of a handful of members who missed the vote creating the OCE, have nothing to do with the new ethics body.

He called for the ethics committee to investigate allegations against him last summer after the New York Post reported his failure to pay taxes on $75,000 worth of income on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.

Still, some of his biggest supporters in the CBC may be venting their frustrations at the OCE after it investigated a trip Rangel and four other CBC members took to the Caribbean last year. The OCE looked into whether the travel was improperly sponsored by corporations in violation of new House ethics rules Democrats imposed, and recommended further investigation to the House ethics committee, which launched a formal investigative subcommittee on the trip earlier this year.

After the the probe was launched, the CBC held a meeting with OCE board members and staff to voice complaints and review the new office’s policies and procedures.

CBC members also have charged that the office does not have enough minority staffers and that the investigators were brusque in their questioning.

Leo Wise, the OCE’s staff director, has noted that the OCE has three investigative counsels: an Arab-American, a woman and an African-American who has been hired but hasn’t started yet.

He also said that the staff has received only praise for its professionalism and discretion.

The OCE also opened cases on Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a prominent CBC member, over a conflict-of-interest issue involving her husband, as well as Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) over a conflict of interest involving a business he owns. In both cases, it recommended further ethics committee review.

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In addition, the OCE looked into Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-Ill.) alleged role in the pay-to-play scheme to win President Barack Obama’s open Senate seat. The ethics committee subsequently halted its own review but deferred to the Justice Department investigation.

Waters voted against the creation of the OCE, while Jackson voted in favor of it.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), another vocal opponent of the OCE, said members under investigation cannot get rid of the ethics cloud hanging over their heads until the ethics committee reaches its final conclusion.

“This outfit amounts to a grand jury,” he said.

Yet the OCE has far fewer investigative powers than the full ethics committee. For instance, the group doesn’t have subpoena powers, a concession Democrats made to members with concerns about giving an outside group such broad powers.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), another CBC member who was opposed to the OCE from the beginning, said the ethics committee should be allowed to work without taking orders from the OCE. But he acknowledged that members are nervous about the board for no real reason.

“To me, the OCE is like a schoolyard bully without any real punch,” he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is charged with getting Democrats reelected, said the creation of the OCE has helped Congress burnish its ethics bona fides.

“It’s something we needed, and I’m glad we have it up and working,” he said.

All the griping and consternation doesn’t surprise Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who headed the bipartisan task force that created the OCE.

“The process is working,” he said. “I always believed there would be bumps and bruises along the way. That’s normal. It’s too early to tell what impact the OCE will have, but I have faith that the system will work out.”