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Ethics Panels Clash in Public

Graves Inquiry Spurs Dispute

The House ethics committee and Office of Congressional Ethics clashed publicly Wednesday over the investigation of a Republican lawmaker, exposing the often prickly relationship between the two oversight bodies.

The spat, which centers on whether evidence gathered in an investigation of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) was properly handled, erupted Wednesday morning when the ethics committee issued a statement questioning the OCE’s recommendation that it probe the Missouri lawmaker.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, said the quasi-independent board’s own inquiry had found no evidence that Graves had broken any rules.

The OCE countered those claims several hours later, stating that Graves was not exonerated and noting its inquiry showed “substantial reason to believe that a substantive violation may have occurred.—

Although the public disagreement is the first highly visible fight between the two bodies, government reform advocates and others familiar with the ethics process expressed little surprise about the incident, noting the ethics committee has bristled at essentially sharing its jurisdiction with another panel.

“An effective OCE is leading to an environment where more ethics investigations see the light of day. However, as two distinct entities fit into the place where before there was only the ethics committee, there are growing pains as they learn to work together,— U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert said.

The OCE is the body created by the House in early 2008 to review and recommend probes of possible ethics violations to the committee.

Sarah Dufendach, vice president of legislative affairs for Common Cause, dismissed any disagreements between the two overseers as cause for concern.

“You will notice there’s a lot more activity on the ethics committee than there has been in … years,— Dufendach said. “We’re getting more information from the ethics committee than we ever did before, even if there is a little bit of testiness between the two— ethics bodies.

The spat Wednesday follows an earlier disagreement between the two ethics panels over rules governing their relationship.

Government reform advocates, who support the OCE’s role in the House ethics process, expressed concerns in June that the ethics panel’s revised rules could make it easier for the ethics panel to supersede the OCE’s investigations, impeding the newer panel’s ability to review allegations.

Although the advocacy groups met with ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) to discuss the matter, the panels themselves restrained their disagreements in public, with each essentially stating that it would follow its own interpretation of its own internal guidelines as well as House rules.

In the dispute that erupted over Graves, the OCE referred the investigation to the ethics panel for further review.

The OCE employs a two-stage review process before determining whether to recommend an investigation to the full committee.

After receiving a recommendation for review, the committee has 45 days before it must publicize the OCE’s report.

The committee may extend that period by an additional 45 days — and voted Tuesday to do so in the Graves investigation, citing concerns with the OCE handling of the case.

“The Committee has identified materials in the Office of Congressional Ethics’ report and findings that may contain exculpatory evidence, which OCE never provided to Representative Graves,— the statement said. “The Committee has voted unanimously to extend this matter to provide Representative Graves with potentially exculpatory materials, which the Committee understands, in the interest of justice, should have been provided to Representative Graves pursuant to Office of Congressional Ethics Rule[s].—

In its response, the OCE dismissed that suggestion, stating that the evidence in question was provided to Graves.

“The information the SOOC suggests ‘may’ be exculpatory was either in Representative Graves’ possession directly or through his counsel, or was not pertinent,— the officials stated. “We respectfully note that documents in the referral to the SOOC make this clear. The OCE would never withhold exculpatory information from a subject of an investigation and did not in this instance.—

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, noted that conflicts over what constitutes exculpatory evidence is common in the judicial system.

“People fight over what’s exculpatory all the time because the standard is not that clear. Some people interpret it broadly. … Other people say it’s something that shows [a defendant] just didn’t do it,— Levenson said. “Oftentimes, exculpatory is in the eye of the beholder.—

Although the ethics committee did not detail what allegations it is investigating with regard to Graves, the Missouri lawmaker issued a statement Wednesday referring to allegations about testimony before the House Small Business Committee.

In March, Roll Call reported that the Congressman invited his friend Brooks Hurst to testify before a Congressional hearing on renewable fuels without mentioning that his wife and Hurst are investors together in renewable fuels plants in Missouri.

“I look forward to a quick review of the facts and answering any questions that the Committee may have,— Graves said in the statement. “I believe that a speedy review will show that all the rules of the House concerning testimony in front of the Small Business Committee were followed.—

Graves is the ranking member on the Small Business Committee, which held the March 4 hearing on “The State of the Renewable Fuels Industry in the Current Economy.—

At that hearing, Graves introduced Hurst as a farmer from northwest Missouri and added that Hurst’s family “is very active in biodiesel and ethanol production.—

Hurst added, “I’m also a member and investor in a small ethanol plant in the town of Craig.—

The only ethanol plant in Craig, Mo., is the Golden Triangle Energy Cooperative.

Graves’ financial disclosure forms indicate that his wife’s investment in Golden Triangle produced $15,001 to $50,000 in income in 2006 and $5,000 to $15,000 in 2007 and 2008. That investment was originally listed on Graves’ disclosure forms as being a joint asset that he shared with his wife.

The ethics committee also revealed Wednesday that it is investigating allegations into unrelated cases involving Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

A statement issued by the ethics committee said each of the investigations is ongoing, but the panel will defer its efforts in Jackson’s case in light of an ongoing Justice Department inquiry.

Jackson acknowledged in April that OCE investigators were reviewing his ties to disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who is accused by federal investigators of choreographing a pay-to-play scheme to auction an open Illinois Senate seat in late 2008.

In December, Jackson also said that he had been contacted by the U.S. attorney’s office.

In its statement, the ethics committee revealed it has been reviewing “whether Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., or an agent of Representative Jackson, may have offered to raise funds for then-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in return for the appointment of Representative Jackson to the Illinois Senate seat.—

Jackson, who has denied wrongdoing in the case, hired Chicago-based attorney James Montgomery in December. Federal Election Commission reports show Jackson has paid at least $115,000 in legal fees through July, the most recent information available.

“As I’ve said from the beginning, I have done nothing wrong, nor have I been accused of doing anything wrong. While the Blagojevich investigation goes on, I will continue to cooperate fully with the ongoing probe. Everyone knew that I was interested in the Senate appointment. I was deeply honored and humbled to receive the support of public officials, organizations and citizens from across the state. My efforts and actions were all public, ethical and legal,— Jackson said in a statement Wednesday.

The ethics committee did not indicate what allegations it is examining involving Waters, but a series of news reports earlier this year questioned the California lawmaker’s role in the decision to provide $12 million in federal bailout funds to OneUnited Bank, where her husband, Sidney Williams, had served on the board and owned a minimum of $500,000 in stock in 2007.

Waters’ office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Paul Singer contributed to this report.

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