Ethics panel drops cases in probe of Wall St. vote, fundraising

The House Ethics Committee has dropped cases against Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.), who faced scrutiny for fundraising in connection with their votes on the financial overhaul law.

The panel ran up against a Jan. 30 deadline and decided to take no further action. Instead, it published a final Ethic Committee staff report that found that each lawmaker’s fundraising “raised no appearances of impropriety,” according to the committee’s final report in the matter.

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“Nor did they violate any law or other applicable standards of conduct in connection with their fundraising activities,” the panel's aides wrote.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which conducts initial investigations and recommends further action, urged the Ethics Committee late last August to look into the lawmakers’ fundraising. The OCE previously dismissed the cases against Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.).

The OCE argued that the fundraising activities of Campbell, Crowley and Price near the time of the vote on the financial overhaul gave the appearance that special treatment or access was provided to campaign donors or that campaign contributions were linked to an official act.

After an independent investigation, the Ethics Committee staff rejected the OCE’s findings and said each lawmaker had maintained a “strict separation between all fundraising activities and legislative activities” by hiring a professional fundraising consultant to manage all aspects of fundraising events.

“These fundraising consultants had no interaction whatsoever with the three members or their legislative staff on legislative activities,” the report concluded.

It also said the fundraisers were planned months in advance without knowing when the Wall Street bill would hit the floor and that thousands of people were invited, not solely individuals from any particular industry.

“Due to this strict separation, each member typically did not even know about fundraising events until the day before or day of the event,” the report said.

In addition, Campbell, Crowley and Price held consistent and well-established legislative positions regarding the Wall Street overhaul long before any of the fundraisers, the report found, and their views were unrelated to requests from campaign donors.

“It is the committee’s staff conclusion that the general characteristics of each member’s fundraising events exhibited no appearances of special access for attendees to the members in their official capacity,” wrote the committee staff. “Rather, they were no different than any routine fundraising event held by any other House member.”

The staff report also found that any correlation in timing between the fundraisers and the vote on the financial overhaul was “happenstance.”

The OCE and the Ethics Committee usually operate in secret, but the OCE investigation, which began last May, became public after The Hill obtained a letter sent to dozens of lobbyists asking them to produce information related to the fundraisers.

Jon Steinman, the OCE spokesman, defended the office’s investigation. “Our reports on these referrals, as in others, contain critical facts and offer a unique window for the American public to see what is going on,” he said. “I hope people read them.”

The OCE’s findings paint a detailed picture of the lawmakers' fundraising activities.

Crowley’s evening fundraiser occurred at the home of a lobbyist who was paid to lobby on the financial overhaul bill. The event took place Dec. 10 while the House was debating a series of amendments that would have strengthened the bill.

In fact, the OCE found that Crowley left the Dec. 10 debate over amendments to attend the fundraiser and then came back to vote against amendments that would have strengthened the bill.

The invitation to Price’s fundraising lunch, also on Dec. 10, was specifically aimed at the financial-services sector.

The connection between the fundraisers held by Campbell and the financial industry is less clear. One of the two events he held Dec. 9 was at the home of defense industry lobbyists Christopher Perkins and Fleming “Mike” Legg.

All three lawmakers have influential finance-related posts. Crowley is the vice chairman of finance at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Price is the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and he and Campbell sit on the Financial Services Committee.

Price’s lunch was also at the Capitol Hill Club, headlined by Rep. Spencer BachusSpencer Thomas BachusManufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank Biz groups take victory lap on Ex-Im Bank On The Money: White House files notice of China tariff hikes | Dems cite NYT report in push for Trump tax returns | Trump hits Iran with new sanctions | Trump praises GM for selling shuttered Ohio factory | Ex-Im Bank back at full strength MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Financial Services Committee. Price also held a fundraising breakfast there Dec. 2, the day the overhaul bill was voted out of committee.

After details about the investigation became public, several watchdogs said the case shows just how confusing the ethics rules regarding fundraising are and demonstrates the need for the Ethics Committee to give lawmakers specific guidance about when they should avoid holding a fundraiser.

For instance, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chaired the Financial Services Committee and shepherded the bill through the committee and the House, canceled a fundraiser planned for early December in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

The Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee said she was not surprised by the Ethics Committee’s decision to dismiss the cases against Campbell, Crowley and Price.

“That members of the Financial Services Committee target donors from the financial-services industry while legislation that affects that industry is pending before Congress is pretty much 'SOP' — standard operating practice in Congress,” she said. “That these fellows pushed the boundaries — with events held that were in close time sequence with key votes — should have provided the committee with an opportunity to advise members of the pitfalls of this kind of activity. But they punted.”

She also said the finding makes clear the need to revamp the way members of Congress raise contributions to ensure that they are not relying on the “special interests” their committees regulate.

Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said the committee’s decision to let the case drop shows the committee’s unwillingness to follow its own standard set in 2004 when it admonished then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for attending an energy industry fundraiser just before an important decision on an energy bill.

“A member should not participate in a fundraising event that gives even an appearance that donors will receive or are entitled to either special treatment or special access,” said a letter sent to Mr. DeLay at the time.

“Members should look at what is an obvious appearance problem and avoid it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like to the Ethics Committee. It matters what it looks like to average Americans. Holding fundraisers with industries right before votes on bill that will directly impact them just looks bad. It’s hard to persuade anybody that there’s really no connection and that’s what the whole appearance standard is supposed to address.”