Watchdog: Rep. Honda likely violated House rules

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) may have violated House rules by using official resources for reelection campaign purposes, the Office of Congressional Ethics alleges in a report released Thursday.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent entity which reviews allegations of misconduct and refers matters to the House Ethics Committee, said there is “substantial reason to believe” that Honda and his staff mixed electoral and official business during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles.

However, OCE recommended that the House Ethics Committee dismiss the allegation Honda used congressional staff for personal errands, including that staffers were asked to help the lawmaker with his Netflix and Apple TV accounts.

For its part, the House Ethics Committee said Thursday that it is extending its review of the matter.

Honda, in a statement provided to The Hill, argued that the OCE allegations were largely the result of staff mistakes.

“I’m rightfully proud of my staff for being extraordinarily hard-working public servants, dedicated to constituent service, but they are not flawless,” Honda said.

Honda announced in July that he is instituting a new policy that prevents congressional staff from volunteering on his reelection campaign in order to avoid future misunderstandings.

The OCE report alleges that members of Honda’s congressional office staff researched a potential campaign opponent, prepared campaign materials and discussed campaign matters during meetings in the district office and official staff retreats.

In addition, OCE says that Honda’s chief of staff asked a campaign staffer to suggest a list of people who previously made campaign contributions while preparing a list of invitees for a February 2013 State Department roundtable at Santa Clara University in California.

House rules prohibit lawmakers from linking solicitations for campaign contributions with congressional office duties.

Honda downplayed the suggestion that his office was trying to turn roundtable invitations into potential campaign contributors.

“What I wanted to do was make sure that we had Indo-Americans there because the Obama administration had done a real good job of hiring and appointing different groups, and I wanted a relationship and let them know that the administration has somebody that can talk to them and hopefully the same language and sentiment and understand the attendees also,” Honda told the OCE.

Honda is engaged in a tough 2016 primary challenge from Ro Khanna, a former Obama Administration official who worked in the Commerce Department, who lost against Honda in 2014.

Staff interviewed by OCE said that Honda’s campaign was concerned that the Indian-American community in Honda’s district was more inclined to support Khanna, who is of Indian descent.

Khanna supporters originally filed an ethics complaint following a 2014 San Jose Inside report that showed emails between Honda staffers regarding the State Department roundtable.

“This is a sad day for the Congress and the 17th district of California,” Khanna campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan said in a statement. “But notwithstanding the evidence that Mike Honda has abused the trust placed in him, the fact is, this investigation will make it even harder for him to deliver results for the people he's meant to represent.”

Khanna, who ended the second quarter with $1.04 million in the bank, is out-raising Honda, who only raised a total of $626,516 in the first six months of the year.

Honda’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, maintained to OCE that there was no expectation that members of Honda’s congressional staff assist with his reelection campaigns. But members of Honda’s staff indicated to OCE that they felt pressured to work on the campaign.

One former legislative assistant stated to OCE that she began doing campaign work after the chief of staff asked her to do so, even though the aide hadn’t outwardly expressed an interest in helping with the campaign.

The former legislative assistant told OCE she would have likely needed to find a new job if she had refused to perform campaign work.

Honda’s district director, meanwhile, told OCE that Honda’s 2014 campaign manager asked her to collect business cards from people attending official events and give them to the campaign to “build a database.”

When asked if he was aware of the practice, Honda told OCE, “I do know that they’ve been pretty tough on me saying that we can’t share that. If you’re going to do it, you have to collect your own, so I do remember them saying that they can’t do that.”

The district director further acknowledged to OCE that campaign matters, such as fundraising and events, were discussed during weekly district office staff meetings.

And during one October 2013 district office retreat, notes from a presentation delivered by then-campaign manager Doug Greven read: “DC makes policy - we do events - Campaign takes DO [district office] events and uses them to raise $”.

Earlier this year, Honda hired three firms to help him with the woes posed by the ethics investigation.

From April through June, he spent $65,308 on “legal services” from Miller & Chevalier, Martin & Gitner and the Brand Law Group, according to his second quarter filings to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

In July, lawyers from Miller & Chevalier and Brand Law Group sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee, asking lawmakers “to conclude this matter without additional action.” Lawyers from those firms represented Honda; Van der Heide, his chief of staff; and his former district director, Meri Maben.

Later that month, the committee announced that it would extend its probe on Honda, the first public confirmation that an investigation was taking place.

Throughout its investigation, the OCE interviewed a dozen individuals — including Honda and current and former staff from his office — and pored over 1,400 pages of documents and emails provided by the congressman’s office.

According to an unedited transcript of one of those interviews, first reported in Metro Silicon Valley, an alternative weekly publication in the Bay Area, former Honda staffer Ruchit Agrawal told OCE investigators that he was tasked with personal duties during taxpayer time including helping to clean the congressman’s house — which he described as “not the cleanest” — and driving Honda around in his parent’s car.

“That was never communicated that there was an expectation that the Congressman would use your car, which was in my case my parents' car,” Agrawal told OCE. “My parents are Republicans. They don't really appreciate that.”

Agrawal, who worked for Honda from the spring of 2012 to fall 2013, also described instances in which Honda’s personal office discussed and coordinated on campaign activities.

Lawyers working for Honda and members of his staff attempted to discredit some of the negative testimony.

The letter describes that some of the whistleblowers were either fired from the congressman’s staff or, in the case of Agrawal, had engaged in inappropriate behavior that resulted in a restraining order levied against him. Agrawal has denied ever physically threatening staff, the allegations that led to the restraining order.

“Not a single document produced to the OCE establishes Representative Honda’s knowledge of, or participation in, any of the issues of concern identified by the OCE,” the lawyers wrote in the July letter, released by the House Ethics Committee on Thursday.

“The OCE based its findings on equivocal and conflicting statements made by the interviewees. It rests a number of its conclusions on the testimony of two former staff members with motives to injure Representative Honda and his office,” Attorneys Stan Brand and Andrew Herman concluded.

“Nonetheless, Representative Honda acknowledges that the OCE report has identified areas of improvement for his office. In light of these concerns, his office has implemented strict procedures to ensure that such issues do not arise in the future,” the letter says.