Ethics Report Tallies Inquiries

Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:08pm

The House ethics committee scrutinized nearly two dozen Members and aides in the 110th Congress, the panel revealed in its biennial report.

According to the 199-page document, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the panel is formally called, conducted informal inquiries into 14 Members and three House employees — none of whom are identified — as well as five formal investigations into then-Reps. William Jefferson (D-La.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) and Reps. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

The committee reported that it ended seven of the informal probes without any formal action, while “the remaining matters are still pending.”

Among its official investigations, which the panel must vote to continue in the new Congress, only the query into Rangel’s personal finances and fundraising activities remains incomplete and is expected to be renewed.

The report, similar to a document each House panel is required to submit at the end of every Congress, chronicles the committee’s activities, providing a rare glimpse into an otherwise guarded ethics process.

“On the House side, you have a kind of partial snapshot of the extent to which the committee is being asked to do and is doing its advisory work, and over the range of issues that might arise, as well as the work specifically related to travel approvals and review,” explained Rob Walker, who served as chief counsel and staff director of the House and Senate ethics panels before leaving to join the firm Wiley Rein.

Aside from the tallies, however, the report provides no other details about ongoing queries aside from those the panel has publicly announced.

“The House report doesn’t give you all that much of a picture perhaps of what happens on the investigative side,” Walker said. “It certainly doesn’t give you a sense … of what number of complaints are received, what number are dismissed for x, y, z reasons. You take a look at these figures, and I don’t know that this kind of report actually does the work of the committee justice.”

“In a typical Congress a lot of allegations and complaints that come in and need to be reviewed and considered by the staff … [and] may not lead to fact-finding, may be dismissed after that initial evaluation,” he added.

Under new ethics laws adopted in 2007, the Senate Ethics Committee is required to make public a similar report on its activities each year, and it is expected to do so later this month.

Unlike the House report, the Senate identifies not only its active investigations, but also reveals the number of complaints alleging rules violations — 95 in 2007 — and the outcome of those submissions — 79 were dismissed outright for lack of jurisdiction or failing to provide sufficient facts.

Although ethics complaints in the House can be initiated only by Members, the Senate Ethics panel accepts complaints from any individual.

In addition to its inquiries into Members and staff, the House ethics panel also tabulates the advisory letters it issues to lawmakers and aides on subjects such as the outside-income and employment limitations, the gift rule, staff participation in campaigns and post-employment restrictions.

In the previous Congress, the House panel issued more than 1,000 such letters, just above its report of 965 letters in the 109th Congress and on average with the rate of just under 1,000 letters per cycle since the 105th Congress began in 1997.

With the addition of new regulations requiring the ethics panel to pre-approve any privately funded travel by Members and aides, the panel also issued an additional 1,100 letters in 2007 and 1,300 letters in 2008, the report states.

The ethics panel also reviews financial disclosure statements filed annually by Members, senior staff and Congressional candidates, and it tallied 6,205 reports in the past cycle. Those include 4,603 disclosures filed by Members or employees, as well as 553 termination reports from departing Members and staff and 1,049 items from House candidates.

Those figures represent nearly an 11 percent increase over the 109th Congress, when the committee reported 5,600 disclosures, including 1,004 reports from candidates.