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Tiahrt Decision Highlights Tensions Over Ethics Process

The House ethics committee report issued Friday on the PMA Group lobbying firm’s relationship to Members of Congress included this odd nugget: Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) was probed by Congressional investigators for nine months despite the fact that there was never a specific allegation that he had done anything wrong.

Tiahrt was one of seven members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense investigated by the House’s independent Office of Congressional Ethics in an effort to determine whether Members had provided earmarks to the clients of the PMA Group in exchange for campaign contributions from the lobbyists and employees of the client firms.

The OCE recommended that the House ethics committee — formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — dismiss the cases of five of the Members, but recommended further investigation of two: Tiahrt, who has virtually no connection to PMA, and Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), whose office has been subpoenaed by the Justice Department in connection with the same issue and who had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from PMA staff and clients within days of making earmark requests on their behalf.

OCE’s report, which Standards released Friday as part of its dismissal of the investigation, notes that in fiscal 2009, Tiahrt “authored earmarks for the clients of the PMA Group” and “during campaign cycles 2008 and 2010, [Tiahrt] received contributions to his campaign committee and leadership PAC from PMA’s Political Action Committee, PMA employees, the PACS of PMA clients for whom he authored an earmark, and the employees of those clients.”

But the report does not allege that Tiahrt had a deal to trade earmarks for campaign contributions. Rather, it says, “If Representative Tiahrt solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in exchange for or because of an official act,” then he “might have” violated House rules.

As in the reports OCE compiled on other Members, investigators found indications that companies appealing for earmarks and their lobbyists believed that making campaign donations helped ensure the Member would support the earmark.

Other Members, including the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who chaired the subcommittee until his death in February, met with the OCE investigators and “credibly articulated a process that separates [the Member’s] legislative activities from campaign fundraising activities” — a phrase repeated for each of the five Members who met with OCE.

Tiahrt and Visclosky both chose not to sit for interviews with OCE but provided the investigators with documents and affidavits swearing that there was no connection between contributions and earmarks.

OCE rejected those submissions and referred their files to Standards for further investigation. The OCE report points out that internal memos of a donor company indicate that the donor felt the campaign contribution and the earmark were linked, and “because the OCE was unable to interview Representative Tiahrt or his staff, the Board is unable to conclude whether the Member was aware or not that the donor linked the contribution to an official act.”

Unlike other Members, Tiahrt was apparently involved in directly calling companies to ask for campaign contributions. Witnesses told the investigators that Tiahrt never linked those requests to any legislative activity, but without being able to ask Tiahrt directly about that issue, OCE concluded that it “cannot fully assess Representative Tiahrt’s role in the former client’s intentions to make contributions based on receipt of earmarks,” and asked the ethics committee to investigate further.

Tiahrt’s attorney, Cleta Mitchell, lambasted OCE for this decision. In a Dec. 22 letter to the ethics committee, Mitchell wrote that “the OCE’s ‘referral’ is supposed to be based on some factual evidence to warrant referral to the Committee. Here, however, the ‘referral’ is made because OCE was unable to obtain any evidence of wrongdoing or possible violations by Rep. Tiahrt.”

The ethics committee appears to have agreed with Mitchell. In dismissing the case against Tiahrt and Visclosky, Standards wrote that “OCE’s recommendations in these two matters rested largely upon the fact that the Members, for differing reasons, were not interviewed.”

OCE’s report points to internal memos from the company Teledyne in which executives discuss making contributions to Tiahrt because he has been supportive of their programs and earmarks. But Mitchell notes that during the period OCE studied, Tiahrt did not request an earmark for Teledyne.

Roll Call previously reported that Tiahrt asked the ethics committee in November to take jurisdiction of his case. Mitchell reiterated in her December letter that “As Rep. Tiahrt has advised the Committee several times, he is willing to meet with the Committee at any time, but decided some time ago not to participate further in the OCE’s fundamentally flawed and questionable process.”

The ethics committee also dismissed OCE’s recommendation for an investigation of Visclosky, despite documents indicating that PMA planned fundraisers for him based on the bills the attendees were hoping to influence. In one 2008 e-mail, a PMA lobbyist said that an invitation to a Visclosky fundraiser had been circulated “to client representatives requesting support from Rep. Visclosky on a Defense issue.”

Ultimately, OCE concluded “there is probable cause to believe that Representative Visclosky solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in exchange for or because of an official act, or solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in a manner which gave the appearance that the contributions were linked to an official act.”

But ethics rejected this allegation, exonerating Visclosky and more than two dozen other Members the committee investigated in the PMA matter. The committee concluded “a full examination of the materials did not establish probable cause of a quid pro quo, or of illegitimate political solicitations by Members or official staff.”

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