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Ethics Panel Probed 111 Cases in Last Congress

The House Ethics Committee more than quintupled its investigations in the 111th Congress compared with the prior Congress — conducting 111 inquiries in 2009 and 2010 — but punished only one House lawmaker for violating the chamber’s rules.

In the 110th Congress, the committee handled only 22 investigations.

According to the committee’s biennial report, which chronicles the panel’s activities in the Congress that concluded in December, the Ethics Committee conducted “fact-gathering” in 111 cases, including four investigative subcommittees and 89 informal inquiries that did not automatically trigger any public disclosure requirements.

The committee also closed 75 inquiries without taking any formal action. The Ethics panel reported 16 “investigative matters” were still pending at the end of December.

The report, a document that each House committee must file at the end of each Congressional cycle, only identifies by name Members who have already been identified in prior public reports.

The only Member of Congress formally punished in the 111th Congress was Rep. Charlie Rangel, who was censured by the House in December for violating multiple House rules. Censure is the most severe punishment available to the committee short of expulsion from the House.

An Ethics subcommittee concluded the New York Democrat had misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, used a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.

Rangel was also “admonished” by the Ethics Committee in February for his participation in two Caribbean trips that received corporate funding in violation of House rules. Five other lawmakers — Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Don Payne (D-N.J.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) — were required to repay the costs of their trips, but the committee said they were not at fault because they did not know how the event was funded.

The committee also admonished Dawn Kelly Mobley, a former Ethics Committee aide to then-Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), for colluding with the nonprofit organization that organized those trips to circumvent the House travel rules.

The Ethics panel took no action against any of the other 35 Members or aides it named in public reports.

Those other investigations included a review of Members’ relationships to the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group. The Ethics Committee closed that probe after finding that no Members or their staffs exchanged earmarks for campaign contributions.

Among the cases that the Ethics Committee has publicly identified, probes of 13 Members were spurred by referrals from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which the House established in 2008 to review potential rules violations and recommend investigations to the Ethics Committee.

In two investigations — the Caribbean travel and PMA probes — the Ethics Committee stated that it initiated its own investigations prior to the OCE’s recommendation to review those matters.

Individuals familiar with the ethics process said the panel’s increased workload is due, at least in part, to the OCE. The quasi-independent office began referring matters to the Ethics panel in 2009 and claims to have referred 38 matters to the Ethics Committee as of September, suggesting further review of 21 matters and dismissal of 17.

“Certainly it’s one of the clearest correlations between the work the Office of Congressional Ethics has done and the work the Ethics Committee has done,” said Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

Defense attorney Stan Brand, a former House general counsel who often represents Members in dealings with the committee, also cited the OCE, but he noted, “These things come in waves; they ebb and flow.”

Ten cases that the Ethics panel reviewed were spurred by a House resolution that requires the Ethics Committee to impanel an investigative subcommittee or issue a report detailing its decision not to do so anytime a Member or House employee is indicted or otherwise charged with criminal conduct.

The Ethics Committee did not open investigative subcommittees into any of those matters, which included seven Members and four aides, including ex-Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), who was charged with driving with an expired license in 2009, and several Members who were charged for their involvement in protest activities.

Among the inquiries that remained incomplete at the close of the 111th Congress were two subcommittees examining unrelated allegations into Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.).

Waters had been scheduled to face an ethics trial in November over allegations that her chief of staff tried to secure federal support for a bank in which Waters and her husband held hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock. But the committee postponed that hearing indefinitely after it announced it had uncovered new evidence in the case in mid-November.

Massa resigned from the House in March in the wake of accusations that he sexually harassed several of his aides. An Ethics subcommittee was assigned to review related issues, including when House Democratic leaders learned of the accusations and how they responded.

The committee also voted in November to continue to delay its investigation into the ties between Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), citing the Justice Department’s ongoing prosecution of the former governor’s scheme to auction an open Senate seat.