Rules OK’d for New Ethics Office

Posted January 23, 2009 at 1:10pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics moved closer to its first investigations on Friday, approving a package of rules and procedures, including how the panel will accept allegations against lawmakers. Following a public hearing to review the proposed guidelines, which include a code of conduct for board members and aides as well as operational matters, the OCE moved into a closed session expected to last several hours. “We are at the point of accepting submissions and we will take actions appropriately,” said former Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), the board’s chairman. Former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) serves as co-chairman. The House voted in early 2007 to establish the independent ethics office, tasked with reviewing complaints and recommending investigations to the full House ethics committee, and board members were appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders last fall. Skaggs said he expects the OCE’s staff size to be determined at least in part by the office’s workload. “We are not hiring a large staff,” he said. The office comprises Staff Director and Chief Counsel Leo Wise, a former Justice Department attorney; Assistant Director Bill Cable, a longtime aide to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and an office director. Wise said the office is in the process of hiring an investigator and will add personnel as needed. Under the procedures established Friday, the OCE will accept complaints from the general public as well as initiate internal reviews based on media reports or other sources. Wise explained that the panel will review all complaints initially to determine whether they fall within the OCE’s jurisdiction, including the date of the allegations — any purported activities must have occurred after March 2008 to fall under the committee’s purview — the participants and the rule or rules being violated. Skaggs also stressed that unlike the House ethics committee, the OCE acts only as a reviewer and cannot initiate a formal complaint, leaving that action to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. “That is its exclusive constitutional role and not ours,” Skaggs said. Although the OCE could recommend an investigation to the House ethics committee, it otherwise has no power to penalize Members. During the open hearing, at which members of the public were invited to discuss the proposed rules, several government reform advocates and ethics specialists addressed the ethics board on a range of issues from the board’s lack of subpoena powers to clarifying technical details. In addition, several individuals addressed whether the OCE should implement limits on its members to prohibit campaign donations or require board members to automatically recuse themselves in the event they have donated to a lawmaker facing investigation. “You folks are dealing in appearances,” said Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission Executive Director Anthony Wilhoit, who proposed an amendment to the OCE’s code of conduct to ban board members from donating to House candidates and incumbents during their tenure. Board members appeared divided over the recommendation. “I’m not certain we should go so far as to bar contributions” said ex-Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), who serves as an alternate on the six-member board. Ex-Rep. Karan English (D-Ariz.) did not explicitly support the proposal, but said, “If we are going to be effective I think we need to have a very tough and high standard.” Skaggs suggested that the board would further review the suggestions and said any amendments to the code of conduct or rules package would likely be raised at the OCE’s next meeting in February. “All of the board wish we could do more in public,” Skaggs said at the end of the hearing. “We will be doing public meetings whenever possible.” Newly anointed House ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) made a brief appearance at the meeting’s outset to welcome the board members. I’ve pledged to completely cooperate with your body,” Lofgren said. Skaggs said the OCE will meet in the near future with the ethics panel.