Kaptur wants the full story on ethics leak

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) is demanding a full and detailed briefing about how a secret ethics committee document ended up in the hands of reporters last week.

A furious Kaptur said she spoke with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday and requested the full briefing about how the ethics committee document became public, but Pelosi has yet to respond.

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“I haven’t heard anything back from her,” Kaptur said. “They made mincemeat of our records and there’s no recourse for us. We have a right to be treated with the same sort of professionalism that we treat our own office documents and staff.”

Kaptur is one of dozens of lawmakers whose names were included in a report of the ethics panel’s activities that was accidentally leaked to The Washington Post. The ethics committee document revealed that Kaptur is under scrutiny for her ties to the now-defunct PMA Group, a once-powerful lobbying firm the Justice Department is investigating.

PMA Group has donated $26,500 to Kaptur’s campaigns since 2006 and the congresswoman has helped steer $8.4 million in federal earmarks to its clients. A Kaptur spokesman has said investigators for the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) had interviewed Kaptur as well as staffers as part of a larger investigation into whether she and six other members of a subcommittee that handles defense spending violated House rules by steering millions of dollars in contracts to companies that hired PMA.

Kaptur, however, has said she has cooperated fully with the probe. She said she never thought her willingness to comply would come back to bite her because of the disclosure of a document that was never intended to be made public.

“This is out in the press and it made it seem like something is going on in regards to our office when there isn’t,” she said. “This is very upsetting to me.”

She also indicated she has doubts about the ethics committee’s explanation of the accidental leak: that a low-level staffer was working from home on a personal computer with file-sharing software that allowed others to access the secret document. The ethics committee said the aide was subsequently fired.

“I want to know who this low-level staffer is, exactly who she answers to and why this happened,” Kaptur said. “I want her to testify under oath, and I want to know if this was purposeful or not … I don’t know that this wasn’t done on purpose.”

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Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced late Friday that they had ordered a review on the handling of sensitive data, but they have not said how long the review would take or whether they would make it available to lawmakers and the public afterward.

Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article by press time.

Others lawmakers whose names appeared in the leaked document also expressed deep concerns about how the document ended up in the hands of reporters, as well as the House ethics process in general.

Right before the leak was revealed a week ago, the ethics committee launched an investigative subcommittee to scrutinize allegations against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.). Separately, the ethics committee dismissed allegations against Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and released a 541-page OCE report as required under rules governing interaction between the OCE and the ethics panel.

In dismissing the charges against Graves, the ethics committee spent 20 pages taking shots at the way the OCE handled the case and accusing it of violating time limits and other process-related rules. The OCE fired back, arguing that the ethics committee had “once again” mischaracterized its work.

The ethics committee and OCE are locked in an intense turf war and have traded barbs in the last few months over procedural and jurisdictional disagreements.

Waters argued that those unresolved conflicts between the two competing House ethics watchdogs have been “damaging” to members because the two are constantly trying to one-up each other and undermine each other’s findings.

Their work is “duplicative,” Waters argued of the OCE, which was created by the House after Democrats took control.

“The role of the OCE is not clear to members,” she said. “They may be making up rules as they go along.”

The OCE held an open public forum at the beginning of this year on its internal rules that received no complaints and little to no involvement or even notice from members. But as soon as the ethics committee began acting on OCE referrals and announcing several investigations, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) started to complain about the new ethics entity.

A large CBC contingent opposed the creation of the OCE in 2008 when Pelosi pushed it through the House as part of her pledge to run the most ethical Congress in history. Those lawmakers became even more critical once they found out that several of their members were under investigation for attending a corporate-sponsored trip to the Caribbean.

The OCE reviewed allegations about Waters’s role in directing up to $50 million in bailout money to a bank where her husband had served on the board of directors until early last year. Waters’s husband has owned at least $250,000 in stock in the institution.

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OCE found enough reason to recommend further investigation by the ethics committee. It also initiated reviews of the allegations against Richardson and Graves. The ethics panel launched investigative subcommittees against Waters and Richardson, but exonerated Graves.

To some CBC members, the choice to clear Graves, a Republican, seemed politically motivated. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally, is the chairwoman of the ethics panel.

“It just looked good to let him off the hook,” a CBC member said, adding that all the time the ethics committee spent taking shots at OCE in the Graves report worried them. That time could have been better spent, the lawmaker said, wrapping up other cases to clear names more quickly.

Other CBC members previously critical of OCE have clammed up in the last week.

In mid-October, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) called the OCE’s creation a mistake, evidence that Democrats were overreacting to the GOP’s Jack Abramoff scandal. Asked what he thinks now, he refused to say a word and reached into his pocket to produce a yellow laminated card that contained the ethics committee’s confidentiality rules.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), another CBC member, said only that he believed the dispute between the OCE and the ethics committee would “work itself out.”

“We have to be careful when talking about these matters that we don’t get accused of playing the race card,” he said.