Tea Party hits Whitehouse on ethics

The Tea Party Patriots group has accused Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a formal complaint of breaking ethics rules by pressuring the administration to target conservative groups engaged in political activities.

Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, sent a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee Monday urging an investigation of Whitehouse’s activities.

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She argues the senator's “inflammatory attacks” against conservative groups appear to constitute “improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate,” citing the Senate’s ethics manual.

She claims Whitehouse “publicly berated” the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice for not prosecuting conservative groups classified under tax law as social welfare organizations for engaging in electioneering activity.

Martin says the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics should review an April 2013 hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, which Whitehouse chaired. The senator told representatives from the IRS and Justice Department that conservative groups had violated federal tax law by stating on tax status applications that they would not engage in political activity, according to the complaint.

Martin said Whitehouse’s pressure prompted the agencies to act. The complaint states that about a month after the hearing, Justice Department officials contacted Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS’s exempt organizations division, to determine whether tax-exempt groups could be prosecuted for lying about political activity.

“Sen. Whitehouse’s conduct — which is pervaded by his unlawful and unethical use of his power to pressure federal agencies to target conservative groups — appears to violate Senate rules,” Martin wrote. “The committee should investigate these potential violations promptly.”

She addressed the letter to Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the chairwoman and ranking Republican, respectively, on the Senate Ethics Committee.

A spokesman for Whitehouse said his boss’s conduct was proper.

“As a former [state] Attorney General and U.S. Attorney, Sen. Whitehouse noticed that certain legal declarations appear to have violated 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1001, making false statements a crime,” said Seth Larson. “Bringing those potential crimes to the attention of the relevant federal authorities is perfectly appropriate for a Senator, indeed any citizen who thinks they may be witness to a crime.” 

This story was updated on June 3 at 10:09 a.m.