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Ethics Committee Ends Member Fundraising Inquiry

The House Ethics Committee declined Wednesday to pursue allegations that three lawmakers’ fundraising events may have violated the chamber’s rules, and at the same time it rejected the Office of Congressional Ethics’ suggestion that the fundraising created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In a written statement, the Ethics Committee announced the panel will take no further action on allegations involving Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Tom Price (R-Ga.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.).

The OCE, which reviews potential rules violations and refers matters to the Ethics Committee, had recommended the panel review whether the trio had violated House rules based on fundraisers each held in advance of the 2009 financial reform vote.

The referrals had questioned whether the lawmakers, by soliciting donations from individuals affected by the financial reform legislation close to the time of a major vote on the matter, may have appeared to be providing special access or benefits to the contributors.

The OCE also reviewed the activities of five other Members — then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-S.D.) and Reps. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.) — but recommended no further investigation. 

The Ethics panel agreed to dismiss four of those cases Wednesday but did not rule on Pomeroy because he is no longer in Congress. 

According to an Ethics Committee staff report released Wednesday, however, the panel’s attorneys questioned the OCE’s decision to recommend any of the investigations for further review.

“In short, a ‘reasonable, thoughtful’ person would not conclude based on the above key facts and surrounding circumstances that there were any appearances of impermissible connections between fundraising activities and official actions related to H.R. 4173 by any of the three Members,” the report states, referring to the financial reform measure.

The report repeats that argument a half dozen times, referring to a legal standard that a “reasonable and thoughtful” person can “discern whether an alleged appearance of impropriety is merely an illusion.”

Ethics staff asserted that the Members could not have violated House standards, in part because each maintained a “strict separation” between fundraising and legislating.

“Each Member maintained strict separation between fundraising activities and legislative activities by hiring a professional fundraising consultant,” the report states. “As such, any connection by timing or other circumstance between fundraising events and official acts … would be happenstance.”

The Ethics report also criticized the OCE for focusing on the attendees at the fundraising events who were registered to lobby on finance issues instead of focusing on the broader pool of invitees.

“A small number of actual attendees is without proper context if the number of invitees is not fully stated,” the Ethics Committee report states. The Ethics report noted that some of the events included guest lists of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. 

The report also states that the Members could not have violated House rules because they maintained a “well-established and consistent official position” on the financial reform legislation before and after their fundraising events.

Ethics staff also rejected the OCE notion that Members may have created an appearance of a conflict of interest by offering amendments favorable to their donors’ interests.

“All amendments that the three Members offered were the product of their impartial judgments on the merits of legislative proposals, not requests from campaign donors,” the report states. “All were the product of each Member’s legislative staff to address what each Member saw as important legislative concerns regarding the underlying bills of H.R. 4173 or various provisions of H.R. 4173.”

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