OCE, House ethics committee fight over release of document

The House ethics committee and a new entity created to help it police lawmakers are engaged in the first major showdown in an ongoing turf war.

Board members and staff of the quasi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) laid down the gauntlet this week and challenged the ethics committee to meet a Friday deadline or face the consequences.

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Watchdogs also joined the OCE in demanding that the ethics committee on Friday release the OCE’s original report on ethics charges against two members: Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

They called it a critical test of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) commitment to raising ethical standards in Congress.

“Friday is the first benchmark of the new transparency that was promised in the creation of the OCE on the heels of Speaker Pelosi’s commitment to ‘the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history,’ ” the groups said. “We look forward to this milestone in the OCE’s brief history.”

The groups releasing the statement include: U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, Common Cause, Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters and Democracy 21.

Tensions between the two ethics bodies have been brewing for months and have been running especially hot in the last two weeks as each side has accused the other of trying to undermine authority and overstep bounds.

Ethics committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) last week tried to clear the air by meeting with the entire OCE board, including former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), its chairman and co-chairman.

But the bad blood and distrust were evident in a quarterly report the OCE released Tuesday, which called for the release of the OCE report.

(The panel does not have to release the report if it decides to empanel an investigative subcommittee, a sign that the ethics committee is seriously investigating the allegations.)

On Sept. 16, the ethics committee announced that it had voted to extend consideration of the Graves and Waters matters for an additional 45 days. As the OCE reads the calendar, the report should be made official Friday.

Ethics also had taken a shot at OCE, chastising it for failing to provide what it considered “exculpatory” information to Graves. The OCE fired back, arguing that the ethics committee had “mischaracterized” its report in the Graves case.

Neither the OCE nor the ethics committee indicated what allegations had surfaced against Graves. He has said it focuses on testimony before the Small Business Committee, and media reports have focused on charges that Graves invited a friend and neighbor, Brooks Hurst, to testify at a hearing on renewable fuels without disclosing that his wife and Hurst are investors in renewable fuels plans in Missouri.

The New York Times and other newspapers questioned Waters’s role in directing up to $50 million in special bailout money to BankOne when her husband had served on the bank’s board of directors until early last year and has owned at least $250,000 in stock in the institution.

The scolding about the Graves case came just a few months after ethics voted in June to give itself broader authority to stop investigations at the OCE.

OCE believes it will be vindicated on Friday when its report is released. If ethics does not release the report, OCE board members and staff are expected to create a stir. Some may threaten to resign, according to sources in the ethics community.

“This is a public test of the way the OCE does its business and how much it is truly independent or whether it is submissive to the ethics committee,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “What I do know is there is unanimity among members of the OCE about the appropriateness of their actions.”

If the two sides don’t learn how to work together without the distrust and tension, Ornstein predicted that Pelosi would have to get involved and broker a truce.

In its report, the OCE also tried to tamp down concerns lawmakers have about the way it reviews allegations against lawmakers.

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It included a one-paragraph section addressing concerns members have raised in recent weeks and months under the title “a note on anonymous ‘complaints’ and newspaper articles.”

It said the OCE board “exercises reasonable due diligence to determine that objectively verifiable facts exist to substantiate an allegation” before it authorizes a preliminary review in any case. It does not go forward until the standard of proof set out in its rules is met, “namely, that a ‘reasonable basis’ exists to believe an allegation,” the report states.

“Such a determination does not constitute a finding that a violation has actually occurred. The OCE board has never authorized a review based on an anonymous ‘complaint’ or a newspaper article,” the report continued.

The OCE accepts complaints from the public, while the ethics committee only allows lawmakers to file complaints against other lawmakers.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) griped about the OCE earlier this year. They even held a meeting with OCE staff to discuss the office’s policies for investigating lawmakers days after the ethics committee announced that it had empaneled an investigative subcommittee to review the corporate sponsorship of a trip five members of the CBC took to the Caribbean in the fall of 2007 and 2008.

The OCE began looking into the trip early this year, recommending an investigation of those members to the full ethics committee in May.

Pelosi pushed for the creation of the OCE despite serious opposition in her caucus. The bill establishing it barely passed the House, and members are wary of its powers and transparency provisions. They worry that the OCE’s rules about making reports public so they cannot be buried forever tarnishes members’ reputations even before the ethics panel can finish its investigation and determine if any ethics rules were broken.

The third-quarter report also provided updated information on the OCE’s work. So far this year, the OCE has opened 25 cases against members, terminating four of them and referring nine to the ethics panel for further review while recommending the dismissal of two others.

The report also noted that 72 private citizens had contacted the OCE in the third quarter, including those seeking information about the office and others reporting allegations of misconduct. It has received 176 inquiries since it first got up and running in the beginning of 2009.