Ethics watchdog files complaint against Reps. Fitzpatrick and Sessions

An ethics watchdog group filed a complaint against Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) for allegedly attending a fundraiser in the Capitol Visitors Center while the 112th Congress was being sworn in.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Executive Director Melanie Sloan said ethic rules were clearly broken.

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“They both skipped the swearing-in ceremony to attend a fundraiser,” Sloan told The Hill. “Obviously money is more important than following the rules.”

Fitzpatrick's office said the congressman welcomed the review.

Congressman Fitzpatrick welcomes this review," spokesman Darren Smith said in a statement. "The reception held last week in the Capitol Visitors Center was not a fundraiser.  It was open and free to all comers and held in compliance with the House Ethics Manual."

Sloan filed the complaint Wednesday afternoon with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a board made up of mainly former lawmakers created three years ago to provide an extra, outside layer of ethics scrutiny and help burnish the House’s tarnished ethics process.

She said her organization and others will use the complaint as a barometer of the GOP-led House’s ethics process and whether they plan to weaken the stronger-than-usual ethics enforcement of the previous three years since the OCE’s creation.

“I’m interested in seeing what they do about [the complaint],” she said. “What is the new position on ethics under Republican control?”

Sessions's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Both lawmakers missed the swearing-in ceremony last week and had to be sworn in later — an embarrassing spectacle for House Republicans to face at the onset of their new majority. To make matters worse, House ethics rule bar members from soliciting contributions on Capitol grounds and Fitzpatrick’s event took place in the Capitol Visitor Center. Sessions serves as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republican’s campaign arm.

Members are allowed to hold swearing-in receptions that are paid for with campaign funds, but an invitation for Fitzpatrick’s reception listed a cost of $30 per person and included a standard form for making campaign contributions.

Smith has said there was no fee to attend the reception and that, while some constituents paid $30 for transportation to Washington, the event was open to the public and others provided their own transportation. Smith did not respond Friday to a request for copies of the checks that attendees of the event gave to the campaign.

Sloan said there are no exceptions to House rules for small-dollar fundraisers. The violation is more egregious, she said, because they were skipping the swearing-in ceremony to attend the event.

“Do they think that a fundraiser is more important than upholding their constitutional duties of taking the oath of office?” asked Sloan.

Sessions and Fitzpatrick late Friday sent a letter of apology to all 433 fellow members of the House for their absence during the official swearing-in, saying they were “deeply committed to fulfilling our role in our constitutional democracy by maintaining the integrity of the People’s House.”

The letter made no specific mention of the Fitzpatrick reception they were attending.

The Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center have publicly called for an ethics investigation into the fundraiser.

One potential question for an ethics inquiry is whether Fitzpatrick was covered under the House rules at the time of his reception, because, as a result of his absence from the House floor, he was not technically a member of Congress at the time.

Democrats have pounced on the incident, but have not called for an ethics investigation into the matter.

In a statement Friday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, stopped just short of doing so.

“Despite their efforts to fix the issue and forget it, there continue to be questions about the nature of the event Rep. Sessions and Rep. Fitzpatrick were attending,” she said. “I urge the Republican majority to use their investigative powers to clarify the circumstances surrounding the issue, and take any steps necessary to enforce the ethics of the U.S. House of Representatives.  We must not return to the [Jack] Abramoff age of ethics violations being hidden from public view.”

—Russell Berman contributed to this article.

This article was updated at 5:19 p.m.