Rep. Flake pushes House ethics panel on depth of pay-to-play investigation

Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSen. Coons examines Amazon's privacy and data security practices for Alexa devices Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax The Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget MORE (R-Ariz.) is asking the ethics committee to prove it did more than a light review of a pay-to-play earmark scandal under investigation by the FBI.

The anti-earmark crusader is frustrated with the brevity of a recent ethics committee report exonerating lawmakers with ties to PMA Group, a lobbying firm known for showering members with campaign cash in return for receiving multimillion-dollar earmarks for its clients.

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Flake is forcing all members of the House to say whether they endorse the report and Tuesday night submitted a privileged resolution calling on the ethics committee to show it’s hand and produce the work behind the report. Democratic leaders must hold a vote on the measure within 48 hours.

Flake considers the report, issued in late February, a whitewash of a real corruption scandal involving members of the defense appropriations subcommittee, the earmarks they doled out to PMA Group clients the campaign contributions they received in return.

“I think it is fair to ask what the Standards Committee did regarding this investigation,” Flake said in a remarks on the House floor Tuesday night. “We know the Standards Committee reviewed documents gathered by the Office of Congressional Ethics. What were those documents? We are also told that the Standards Committee interviewed numerous witnesses. Who were they?”

Flake also would like the ethics committee to provide clearer guidance on accepting campaign contributions from entities requesting earmarks and change He argues that House ethics rules should treat campaign contributions the same way they regard members’ personal finances.

Right now lawmakers must certify that they or their spouses don’t have a personal financial interest in any earmark request. Flake would like the ethics committee to regard campaign contributions as a “financial interest” and bar lawmakers from requesting earmarks from entities, or the lobbyists representing them, that have donated to the lawmaker’s campaign.

“When behavior that is condoned by this body lends itself to a ‘widespread perception’ of impropriety, we have an obligation not only to change the behavior, but to change that rules that police and govern such behavior,” Flake said, referring to a quote in the story.

Flake’s move comes at a time when Democrats are particularly vulnerable on the ethics front. Last week Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) resigned his chairmanship of the Ways and Means panel amid an ethics scandal and Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) is still making headlines after resigning his seat amid allegations he sexually harassed a male staffer.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has floated the idea of imposing a moratorium on earmarks as a way to burnish the party’s ethics bona fides and outflank Republicans, who have considered full earmark moratoriums at various times over the past few years but failed to impose them.

Last year, Democrats fended off nine different attempts by Flake to shake the ethics committee into action on the PMA issue. Each time, however, more Democrats sided with Flake, including 29 Democrats in May of last year. Eventually, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) offered his own resolution calling on the ethics committee to say whether it was already investigating the PMA controversy. In a parliamentary maneuver, that measure was simply submitted to the committee for consideration, but the panel appeared to get the message and shortly after announced that it was investigating the matter.

But the panel’s findings were just five pages long and included no documentation of any evidence collected or any interviews conducted beyond a statement that the investigation “included extensive document reviews and interviews with numerous witnesses.” The panel included the extensive work of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which recommended the ethics committee further investigate the activity of two members of defense appropriations subcommittee.

Watchdogs have lambasted the report for papering over a serious corruption problem in Congress. Pelosi’s consideration of earmark reform, they argue, is proof that the ethics committee’s conclusions in its PMA report have left Democrats susceptible to criticism on the issue. They agree with Flake’s push for more restrictions on earmarks and campaign contributions and believe any new rules will help Democrats regain their ethics footing.

“The widespread perception of dependent relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions carries with it no partisan advantage,” Flake said. “The cloud that hangs over this body rains on Republicans and Democrats alike, and we will all benefit when this cloud is lifted.”