Ethics Office Draws Critics

Posted November 16, 2007 at 6:23pm

Following months of deliberations, the House task force charged with reviewing the chamber’s ethics process will soon call for the creation of an independent office to supplement the complaint process — although the general public will still be prohibited from initiating investigations against Members.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the task force’s chairman, also called for a long-term task force to review the overall House ethics process through the 2008 elections, which would monitor the new ethics office as well as review ethics and lobbying reforms implemented this year.

“If I’m finished with anything, I think the world’s stopped,” he said in an interview before a draft of the task force’s proposal was circulated to Members last week, saying the new proposal would “probably be the single biggest advancement” in improving the ethics procedures for some time.

Capuano said he did not necessarily see a role for himself on such a long-term task force, indicating that he already has put in his time spearheading such a thorny debate.

The Massachusetts lawmaker declined Thursday to discuss the details of the draft, which calls for an “Office of Congressional Ethics,” but acknowledged the proposal will likely be presented to House leaders next month.

“My plan is to get this finalized at the task force level in early December,” Capuano said. The full House would be required to vote on the final proposal to implement the new structure.

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the task force’s ranking member, said the draft had not been approved by Republicans on the panel.

“There’s certainly no agreement at this point,” Smith said. He declined to detail the lingering disagreements, but added: “There are many major outstanding issues.”

According to a draft of the proposal, the task force will recommend an independent OCE to vet potential ethics violations and advise the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

The body would be composed of six members selected by the Speaker and Minority Leader but could not include current Members or registered lobbyists. Those individuals would serve four-year terms and could be removed only by agreement of both parties leaders.

Unlike a preliminary proposal that drew complaints from rank-and-file Members earlier this year, the new ethics body will not accept complaints from the general public or outside groups. Filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997.

Under the proposed structure, the six-member board would be charged with initiating its own reviews, however, Member-initiated complaints would continue to be filed directly with the ethics committee.

The new ethics office would work via a two-stage review process before forwarding potential investigations to the ethics panel, although it would be required to regularly notify both the subject of a review and the committee of its progress.

“The key component here is transparency,” Capuano said of his vision for the ethics process.

Preliminary reviews would be initiated via agreement of two board members and would last either 30 calendar days or five legislative days, whichever is longer, at the end of which time the board would vote to terminate the review or move to the next stage of its investigation.

The second investigative stage may last up to 45 calendar days or five legislative days but could be extended once for an additional 14 calendar days.

Any investigation that reaches the second stage also must be forwarded to the ethics committee. The board must submit a two-part report that includes a factual account of its investigation, as well as a recommendation for either dismissal or further inquiry, or alternately states that the board’s decision ended in a tie.

“Neither document shall contain conclusions regarding the validity of the allegations or the guilt or innocence of the person subject to review — such matters are the sole purview of the Ethics Committee,” the draft states.

In addition, the proposal would address the ethics committee’s handling of the investigations, requiring the panel to review any report within 45 calendar days or five legislative days of receiving the documents. The panel could opt to extend that period once.

If the committee elects to pursue an investigation, it would be required to publicize that it has established an investigative subcommittee, much as it must do under current rules. However, should the ethics panel fail to release a decision within a one-year period, the board’s report would be published. In addition, the board’s reports to the committee would be released at the close of each Congress.

If the panel defers its investigation at the request of the Justice Department or other law enforcement agency or regulatory body, however, it is required to announce that fact.

Alternately, if both the board and the ethics panel agree that an investigation should be dismissed, the committee is not required to make its decision public.

In the earlier interview, Capuano said he believes the biggest ethics quandaries do not involve the “Duke Cunninghams” of the world — a reference to the former California Republican sentenced to an eight-year prison term after pleading guilty to bribery in 2005 — but instead “the gray areas” where most Members tend to trend.

“The gray area is the real problem,” he said. “We all live on the edge raising money.”

“I don’t know every detail about the lobby law,” he added. “We all have radar.”

He added that most Members want clear rules so they won’t be “crucified” for inadvertently crossing the line when it comes to accepting gifts or travel from lobbyists. “I don’t enter it thinking that most people in politics are bad people.”

The task force proposal comes more than six months after the initial May 1 deadline set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

In advance of the two-week Thanksgiving recess, an aide in the Speaker’s office said: “We’ve received it and it’s being reviewed.”

Freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), who succeeded scandal-plagued ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R), said he had not seen the draft last week but suggested it would be judged in the context of incidents such as those that ended his predecessor’s career. “Had this been in place, would things have been different?”

But reform advocates, lead by the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters and Public Citizen, criticized the draft proposal, asserting the new office would be ineffective, citing its lack of subpoena power and the continued closure of the ethics process to outside groups.

“The new Office of Congressional Ethics … set forth in the outline of the proposal is being given a job to do without the authority needed to do the job. It is an Office with handcuffs on,” the groups said in a statement Friday.

In the meantime, freshman Reps. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio) — Space succeeded ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R), now serving a 30-month prison term for corruption charges — introduced a measure Friday that calls for a similar independent ethics body, the “House Independent Commission on Standards.”

“Since the beginning of the year, the freshman class has made it clear we need to make the ethics enforcement process work again,” Murphy said in a statement. “Representative Space and I think this bill is a good faith effort to initiate reform while being sensitive to Members’ concerns.”

The legislation would strip the ethics committee of its responsibility for initiating or investigating inquiries — essentially preserving the panel to issue recommendations to Members seeking to conform with ethics rules — and establish an eight-member commission to execute investigations of Members, officers or staff.

The commission, made up of former Members and other individuals serving terms of four to six years, would initiate its own investigations, but also would accept requests from current Members as well as the ethics panel. In addition, the commission would issue a form for public complaints, although it would not be required to act on those submissions.

Although the body could hold hearings, take testimony, collect evidence and administer oaths — and even issue letters of admonishment — it would not be granted subpoena powers. Instead, the commission could only issue a subpoena with the permission of the chairman and ranking member of the ethics committee.

The commission would submit its findings to the ethics committee and all reports would be published in the Congressional Record. Any action recommended by the commission must be introduced as a privileged resolution within 14 calendar days of the report’s submission and could be brought to the floor by any Member.

Paul Singer contributed to this report.