Ethics Overseers Get Started

Posted January 21, 2009 at 6:34pm

The fledgling House Office of Congressional Ethics will host an open meeting on Friday to evaluate its proposed rules and procedures, which include guidelines for how the independent panel will accept grievances.

The OCE, tasked with reviewing complaints and recommending investigations to the full House ethics committee, said in a statement released Wednesday that the open meeting is “consistent with the desire of the House for more transparency in these matters.”

“The meeting will afford Members and staff, organizations who have been following the issue and other interested individuals, an opportunity to comment on the drafts,” the statement said.

A list of those Members or organizations expected to attend was not immediately available, but it is expected to include government reform advocates who lobbied for the OCE’s creation in the previous Congress.

Barring the emergence of major disagreements in the public session, the six- member board led by chairman and ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and co-chairman and ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), could approve the rules package as early as Friday, moving the ethics office closer to its first investigations.

The proposed guidelines include a code of conduct for board members and staff, as well as procedures for how the OCE will initiate various stages of investigation and issue recommendations to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

A draft copy of the rules indicates the OCE will establish an open process for accepting allegations of rules violations.

“The Office will accept and review information concerning allegations within the Office’s jurisdiction,” the rules state. “While the Office will request the name and contact information of anyone submitting information, information may be submitted anonymously or confidentially.”

The rules indicate filers are encouraged to include personal contact information, as well as details of the allegation, including potential witnesses and documents.

But the rules note that unlike a formal complaint to the House ethics committee — a process that is limited to Members — an allegation filed with the OCE will not automatically trigger a formal investigation.

In addition, the OCE board members and staff may also submit information on alleged violations, including allegations raised in the media and by other sources.

The code of conduct requires board members and staff to adhere to a confidentiality notice, file annual financial disclosures similar to those submitted by Members and senior staff, and also bans them from participation in partisan activities.

In addition, those individuals must sign an oath stating they will not seek an elected Congressional post for three years after leaving the office.

The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. in Room 1309 in the Longworth House Office Building.