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

{mosads}“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

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 Bachus (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.”

Tags Spencer Bachus

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