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Ethics Panel Issues Midyear Report

The House ethics committee has opened 15 investigations in the 111th Congress, according to a semiannual report issued by the panel Friday.In a “Dear Colleague— letter distributed Friday, the ethics committee describes the report as part of a continued effort to make the panel’s work more transparent, an apparent response to long-running criticisms of the committee.“The Committee’s duty to maintain confidentiality can make the Committee appear insufficiently accountable or transparent,— the report states. “The Committee, to the extent our confidentiality obligations permit, intends to be transparent, and it will be accountable.—Although the ethics committee publishes a biennial report at the close of each Congress — which typically offers a breakdown of the committee’s advisory work as well as any investigative subcommittees — the midyear status report is a new attempt at increased transparency. While the report offers a statistical analysis, the document does not detail any of the 15 investigations initiated in 2009 or any of the 11 investigations the committee has carried over from the 110th Congress.The report notes that the committee has opened one investigative subcommittee and continued a second subcommittee from the previous Congress. The committee has previously announced an investigative subcommittee targeting Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and his personal finances and fundraising activities, although it is not identified in the report. In late June, another investigative subcommittee was approved to examine whether Rangel and Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) violated House gift rules while on privately sponsored travel to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.The report also details the committee’s work issuing advisory opinions, informal advice, ethics training and reviews of financial disclosure reports.In particular, the committee reports that it has sought to reduce a backlog of advisory opinion requests, the formal letters issued in response to inquiries made to the panel by Members and their offices.“At the beginning of this Congress, there was a substantial backlog of advisory opinion requests to which the Committee had yet to respond,— the report states. “Many of those requests were months delayed. In some cases, responses were delayed by as much as a year or more.—According to the report, the ethics panel has established a two-week time period for responding to such requests. The committee has responded to 311 advisory opinion requests from the 357 it has received since January, the report notes. “The policy change has greatly increased the turnaround time for responses, leading to more timely and effective advice to Members and staff on issues of concern to them,— the report states. “The policy also has encouraged Members and staff to seek confidential advice from the Committee before acting, promoting greater compliance with the House’s ethics rules.—The committee has increased its two-week response rate to 80 percent in recent weeks, issued 49 replies to 61 requests, compared with the 39 percent rate it achieved between January and the end of April, issuing 98 replies to 251 requests within its new time frame. During the 110th Congress, the House panel issued more than 1,000 advisory opinions, and has, on average, issued just under 1,000 such letters per cycle since the 105th Congress.

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