House

Ethics office defends practices after GOP push to dismantle it

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The House’s independent ethics watchdog is offering a defense of its policies governing investigations of lawmakers after Republicans tried to weaken it at the start of the new Congress last month.

Tacked at the end of a typically under-the-radar quarterly report from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) on Wednesday was a “note on allegations and investigations.” 

House Republicans originally adopted a proposal to put the OCE under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, effectively torpedoing its original purpose to remain independent of lawmakers’ control. It would have also prevented the OCE from employing a communications director — meant to prevent leaks to the media — and barred the consideration of anonymous tips about lawmaker wrongdoing.

{mosads}Republicans who supported the measure — primarily those who had been investigated by the OCE at some point — argued it would have ensured due process for lawmakers. 

But the House GOP ultimately abandoned the proposal following an intense public backlash, setting the first day of the new Congress off to a rocky start. 

The OCE was created in 2008 under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in response to a series of ethics scandals involving GOP lawmakers. It has free rein to review allegations against members of the House and makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee. Only the House Ethics Committee has power to punish lawmakers accused of wrongdoing.

In its note Wednesday, the OCE reiterated its longstanding policies on how it receives submissions from the public, third-party sources and information reported in the media. Even then, not all submissions lead to investigations, which must be requested by at least two members of the OCE’s board.

Any submissions from members of the public must include the individual’s name and address.

“When information about a possible violation is received, the staff reviews it; when warranted, staff then may consider the legal basis for the allegation and review other publicly available information to determine whether to recommend that the Board authorize a preliminary review,” the note states. “The OCE accepts information from the public; however a submission of information does not itself trigger a review.”

Relatively few submissions lead to OCE investigations. A total of 6,285 private citizens contacted the OCE during the last session of Congress, from 2015 to 2016. But the OCE’s board only began preliminary reviews 35 times during that period, 11 of which were terminated. Eighteen cases were referred to Ethics Committee for review, while six were referred for dismissal.

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