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Ethics Seeks to Clarify Relationship With OCE

The House ethics committee on Monday unveiled a revised version of its internal rules that more thoroughly define its relationship with the fledgling Office of Congressional Ethics.

“We just conformed our rules to House rules, and it should’ve been done long ago,— Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said.

But it is not clear whether the amended rules could ultimately shift the balance of power between the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the OCE.

Among the additions to the committee’s internal rules is a new definition that identifies what activities the panel identifies as investigations.

Previous committee rules included only a description of an official “inquiry,— which is defined as an “investigation by an investigative subcommittee— into allegations of rules violations. That definition is still included in the new rules package.

The new definition — which covers “investigate,’ investigating,’ and/or investigation’— — comprises not only reviews by an investigative subcommittee, but also any review that is authorized or conducted by the full ethics panel, or alternately by only the committee’s chairwoman and ranking member.

The new definition is also reflected in the ethics committee’s rules outlining its authority to review allegations of wrongdoing.

Those rules allow the committee to probe allegations under several scenarios, such as when a Member has filed a formal complaint or a lawmaker or House aide is convicted of a felony.

While the previous version of the rules also allowed probes when the ethics committee formed its own investigative subcommittee, the new rules expand that option to anytime the “Committee, on its own initiative, undertakes an investigation.—

Although those changes were included in the new rules to reflect long-standing committee practices — as well as to conform with language in the House rules — the addition could potentially spark a disagreement between the two ethics bodies.

The newer OCE, established at the behest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and over the objections of many rank-and-file Members in early 2008, is intended to serve as a semiautonomous House organization. The OCE is responsible for reviewing potential rules violations and issuing recommendations to the full ethics committee.

Under the resolution that created the OCE, the House ethics panel is permitted to trump any ongoing OCE investigation if the House panel is already reviewing the same allegation.

“Upon receipt of a written request from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that the [OCE] cease its review of any matter … because of the ongoing investigation of such matter by the committee, the [OCE] shall refer such matter to the committee and cease its … review,— the resolution states.

According to the OCE’s internal rules approved in early 2009, the office interpreted that resolution by requiring the ethics committee to first establish an investigative subcommittee.

The OCE will “cease its review … because of an ongoing investigation of such matter by an investigatory subcommittee of the Standards Committee, the Board shall refer such matter to the Committee,— the rules state.

It remains to be seen, however, if the ethics panel’s new definition of “investigation— would allow it to request the OCE to refer its own inquiries, even if it has not formed a formal investigative subcommittee.

That topic was previously the subject of heated negotiations during the yearlong process to write the resolution that established the OCE.

“We were always concerned about the ethics committee taking away, prematurely, a matter being examined by the Office of Congressional Ethics,— said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, one of several government reform groups that supported the OCE’s creation. “If this is what the changes mean, it is wrong as a matter of policy.—

OCE Staff Director and Chief Counsel Leo Wise said Wednesday he could not comment on the ethics committee’s internal rules.

Ethics Staff Director and Chief Counsel Blake Chisam also offered limited comment, confirming only that the amended rules had been submitted to the House on Monday.

In addition, the amended ethics rules also include clerical corrections, as well as new language reflecting a House rule approved in 2007 that requires the ethics panel to act anytime a Member is “indicted or otherwise informally charged with criminal conduct.—

That provision gives the panel 30 days after the Member has been indicted or charged to either empanel an investigative subcommittee or issue a report detailing its decision not to do so.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.

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