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Ethics Panel Criticizes, But Doesn’t Punish, McCarthy

The top two lawmakers on the House ethics committee criticized retiring Rep. Karen McCarthy on Thursday night for her use of campaign funds to pay for a 2003 trip to the Grammy Awards, though they said the panel would not take any further action against the Missouri Democrat.

Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Allan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) — the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — said in a statement that McCarthy had previously failed to provide the panel with requested information about the Grammys trip and has since apparently ignored committee instructions requiring her to repay her campaign with personal funds.

“Normally such disregard of Committee determinations by a Member would warrant the initiation of a formal disciplinary proceeding against the Member,” Hefley and Mollohan wrote. “After careful consideration, we have decided … not to recommend that the Committee initiate such action.”

Pointing out that McCarthy is retiring at the end of this Congress, the lawmakers said “it was not possible, as a practical matter, for a formal proceeding on this matter to be completed” before the session ends.

Hefley and Mollohan added that McCarthy’s apparent expenditure of campaign funds for personal use violated the Federal Election Campaign Act “and thus it is still possible that this matter will be remedied by action of the Federal Election Commission.”

In response, McCarthy released a statement Thursday night saying, “I am pleased the committee recommended no action as I know I did nothing wrong. I am confident that based on controlling FEC precedents my campaign activities at the Grammys did not violate federal election law.”

While they will not pursue any further action, Hefley and Mollohan took the opportunity Thursday “to reiterate to all Members that use of campaign funds to pay expenses incurred in attending an event that is entertainment in nature, such as the Grammy Awards, is not permissible.”

McCarthy’s February 2003 trip to New York first sparked controversy last November after former aides leaked documents to the Kansas City Star showing that she spent nearly $3,000 from her personal campaign account to stay for four days at the Waldorf-Astoria and Towers Hotel.

McCarthy’s lawyer argued at the time that her trip to the Grammys was a legitimate professional expense given her seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over many issues related to the music industry.

According to Thursday’s ethics committee statement, McCarthy made submissions to the panel to support her claim that the trip was proper, but then did not provide additional requested documentation on what she did during the New York trip other than attend the Grammys ceremony.

“In view of her failure to establish that her trip had ‘bona fide campaign or political purposes,’ we concluded in the middle of this year, and advised Representative McCarthy, that she was required to repay the expenses of that trip to her campaign account using personal funds,” Hefley and Mollohan wrote.

“However, to date she has failed to make the required repayment or even to state her intention to do so.”

The Grammys trip was only one of several negative stories that emerged about McCarthy during the last two years, contributing to her decision not to run for a 6th term. Former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver (D) was elected to take her seat earlier this month.

In March 2003, McCarthy checked into an Arizona rehabilitation facility to seek treatment for alcoholism after an incident in which she fell down an escalator in the Rayburn House Office Building while inebriated. Within months of that incident, several staffers in her House office quit.

McCarthy then hired an outside political consulting firm to provide advice on overhauling her Washington office and sought to pay the firm with money from her campaign and her Members Representational Allowance.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) informed the Missouri lawmaker in September 2003 that she could not use her MRA for the purpose, but this past March, the ethics committee granted McCarthy permission to use her campaign funds.