Office of Congressional Ethics refers three cases to House panel for review

The independent ethics office has referred three cases of alleged misconduct in the last three months to the full House ethics committee for further review.

The independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) office also recommended seven cases for dismissal.

The office does not release the names of lawmakers subject to the moves, but action by the House ethics panel in December made one case apparent.

The panel on Dec. 24 announced an investigation into Rep. Pete Stark’s (D-Calif.) conduct. It did not disclose what it was investigating, saying only that it will announce a course of action in the case before Feb. 10.

Stark came under scrutiny in media reports last year for receiving a Maryland tax break intended for state residents.

The OCE also noted in its report that the ethics panel has until Jan. 16 to take public action on two other cases the office forwarded to the panel for review.

Those cases are unknown but could involve members under scrutiny for their ties to PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm that was raided by the FBI in early 2009. PMA associates and clients showered key members of Congress with campaign contributions, and their clients received millions of dollars in congressional earmarks.

The actions took place between September and December of last year, the OCE disclosed Thursday in its fourth-quarter report. The new entity is required to issue quarterly reports about how many cases it’s working on, but cannot make the subject matter of those inquiries public.

“Consistent with the desire of the House for more transparency in these matters, the OCE released today a report of its activities for the fourth quarter, October to December, of 2009,” the office said in a release.

In its first year, the OCE issued a total of 12 matters to the panel for further review and eight matters for dismissal.

Several members scrutinized in the media for their ties to PMA released letters from the OCE sent in December clearing them of any wrongdoing. Those members include Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.).

The offices of Democratic Reps. Peter Visclosky (Ind.) and Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), as well as GOP Reps. Todd Tiahrt (Kansas) and Bill Young (Fla.), who also have faced scrutiny for their ties to PMA, did not immediately respond when asked if they too had received OCE letters clearing their bosses' names.

Visclosky’s chief of staff and office records were subpoenaed last year by the FBI. He temporarily gave up his post as chairman of the Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee after the FBI probe became public. Visclosky received more money from PMA Group and its clients than all other current members of Congress except Murtha.

The OCE’s decision to clear members of Congress in the PMA matter may have little impact on an ongoing full ethics committee investigation into the matter. The OCE was formed last year to launch initial reviews of ethics allegations and make recommendations to the ethics committee for further action. But the ethics committee operates separately and has more investigative powers, such as the ability to subpoena documents and testimony, and may determine its own path in the PMA matter.

The ethics panel publicly acknowledged that it had launched a probe in June after the House passed a resolution sponsored by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) calling on the ethics committee to disclose whether it was investigating the PMA issue. Hoyer’s measure came after Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) ninth attempt to force the ethics panel to launch an investigation into the nexus between lawmakers’ earmarks to PMA Group and its clients and the political contributions the members received from them.