Watchdog groups decry friction between ethics bodies displayed in Stark case

Watchdog groups are scolding the House ethics committee for continuing to openly feud and rebuke the ethics office Democrats created in 2008 to help the panel police members.

“The public feud between the ethics committee and [Office of Congressional Ethics] is out of hand,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Regardless of the facts in this case, using an ethics report to call out the OCE is beyond bad form. It is petty and counterproductive.”

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In a report released Thursday exonerating Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) of any wrongdoing in applying for a $3,770 tax credit for his Maryland home, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the standards or ethics committee, openly bashed the initial review conducted by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

“The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Standards Committee) concludes that the OCE conducted an inadequate review, the result of which was to subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal accusations,” the panel wrote in its report.

The OCE quickly jumped in to defend its review in a statement, highlighting the fact that it could not have known that Stark did not receive the tax credit that year because the finance office for the Anne Arundel County, where Stark lives, does not mail such information to homeowners until November 2009, three months after the OCE review concluded.

"The OCE conducted a thorough and professional review and accurately reported the facts gathered in the course of its review,” OCE spokesman Jon Steinman said in a statement. “The document the [ethics committee] is citing, in order to claim that the OCE‘s review was inadequate, was never provided to the OCE by Representative Stark. In fact, according to the Anne Arundel County Finance Office, such documents are not even mailed to homeowners until the end of November 2009 -- almost three months after the OCE review concluded.”


The ethics committee declined to comment and referred to the Stark report.

The two House ethics entities also parted ways on whether Stark’s call to the Department of Assessment and Taxation to change his answer on a question on the application violated Maryland law and the Code of Ethics for Government Service.

The OCE review focused on what steps Stark took or did not take to secure the credit not whether he was successful in securing it. The ethics committee said it regarded the phone call as “immaterial” because the Maryland tax department ultimately found him ineligible for the credit.

The finger-pointing between ethics and the OCE is nothing new. Tensions between the two ethics entities have flared in recent months after months of accusations that each side was trying to undermine the authority of the other and overstep its bounds. In late October, the ethics committee took the OCE to task for failing to provide what it considered “exculpatory” information in a case involving Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.). The OCE fired back, arguing that the ethics committee had “mischaracterized” its report in the Graves case.

No matter what their differences between the OCE and the ethics committee are, watchdogs argue it is inappropriate to take pot shots at each other in public reports and statements. House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have touted the creation of the OCE as a major ethics improvement and a break from the GOP-controlled House in which the ethics process remained broken.

“The allegations made by the ethics committee about the Office of Congressional Ethics continue the endless turf war between the two bodies,” said Lisa Gilbert, a spokeswoman for U.S. PIRG. “They also reinforce our perception that [the panel] seems to be trying to build a record against the OCE, rather than dealing with the various matters at hand…”

Sloan was harsher on the ethics committee’s record in dealing with the OCE, reminding the panel that its poor track record is what prompted Pelosi to push through the creation of the new ethics entity.

“Over the past 12 months the Ethics Committee has made it abundantly clear it views the OCE as an annoying interloper interfering with the restrained and judicious investigation of members charged with wrongdoing,” Sloan said. “The Ethics Committee would do well to remember the reason the OCE was created in the first place was because the public has no faith in the Ethics Committee’s ability to police the conduct of members of Congress. That hasn’t changed. At least the OCE is doing something, which is more than anyone can say about the Ethics Committee.”