Ethics panel dismisses case against Rep. Williams over transportation proposal
© Greg Nash

The House Ethics Committee revealed on Tuesday it has dismissed allegations that Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsBush hailed for principles as lawmakers pay respects House Republicans set to elect similar team of leaders despite midterm thumping Veterans can help meet the physician shortage in the VA health system, but this policy is a barrier MORE (R-Texas) offered an amendment to a transportation bill that could have benefited his personal financial interests.

Williams had been the subject of an independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) probe last year of whether he violated House ethics rules in late 2015 by offering an amendment to legislation reauthorizing surface transportation programs that could have affected his eponymous car dealership. The OCE recommended that the Ethics Committee further review the matter.

Williams served as CEO of Roger Williams Auto Mall in Weatherford, Texas, before ceding control to his wife and daughters upon winning election to the House in 2012. He is no longer involved in daily operations, but still retains his personal holdings in the business.

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In a newly released report, the House Ethics Committee said it found the “evidence is insufficient to warrant further action against” Williams. 

But it said the allegations against Williams offered a cautionary tale for members considering introducing legislation or taking other official actions that could impact their personal financial interests. It recommended that members consult the Ethics Committee to avoid finding themselves in a similar situation.

“In this case, while the Committee would have advised Representative Williams that he was not prohibited from introducing the Williams Amendment, it might have made Representative Williams aware of several potential issues, including the possibility that members of the public, the press, and others could raise questions about Representative Williams’ actions. In fact, that is precisely what happened,” the report stated.

Williams and his car dealership declined to cooperate with the OCE investigation but did provide the Ethics Committee with information.

The amendment in question, offered by Williams, would have effectively exempted car dealerships from a provision in the transportation bill that prohibited renting or loaning vehicles subject to safety recalls. His amendment was meant to apply to dealers whose primary business is not vehicle rentals.

Williams's amendment was adopted by voice vote but did not ultimately become law.

The Ethics Committee found that Rogers offered the amendment at the suggestion of an outside group.

The National Automobile Dealers Association opposed the provision and turned to Williams as a possible candidate to offer an amendment in the House to limit its application to car dealers.

According to the Ethics report, Williams had not considered introducing any amendments to the transportation bill before the group reached out to his staff.

Williams’s deputy chief of staff said the group wanted his help because he was “familiar with automobile dealerships.” The lawmaker said the amendment “sounds like a no-brainer” and agreed to sponsor it.

Meredith McGehee, the chief of policy at ethics advocacy group Issue One, said the Ethics Committee should have gone further in reprimanding Williams. 

McGehee had originally filed an ethics complaint against Williams in November 2015 over the car dealership amendment.

“There was clearly a violation of the plain language instructions in the House ethics manual. Now, we learn Rep. Williams did not even receive a slap on the wrist,” McGehee said in a statement. “What purpose does the House Ethics Committee serve if it doesn’t ensure compliance with its own standards of conduct?”

Incidentally, the eight vehicles on the Roger Williams Auto Mall’s loaner fleet were all subject to a Chrysler recall and may have been required to be grounded under the original provision Williams was seeking to amend. Williams told Ethics committee staff that he knew the loaner fleet consisted of Chrysler vehicles but was unaware of the specific models or the applicable recalls.

Still, the Ethics Committee concluded there is “no evidence” to suggest Williams or his staff ever discussed whether the transportation legislation or his amendment would have any impact on the family car dealership.

“Representative Williams neither conceived of nor drafted the amendment, which is further evidence that he did not introduce the Williams Amendment to benefit himself or any personal financial interest in the Auto Mall,” the Ethics report stated.

The House Ethics Committee also on Tuesday dismissed allegations that Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, improperly solicited campaign contributions while participating in Democrats' House floor sit-in last year.

—Updated at 4:31 p.m.