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Lofgren: Ethics Panel’s New Offices Unsuitable for Sensitive Work

Former House Ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren decried the panel’s new offices on Tuesday as “dysfunctional” and unfit for confidential work, and the panel’s current leaders acknowledged they would welcome a relocation.

“It’s certainly not the committee’s fault, it wasn’t their choice to move, but I’ll just say it, I think the space is terrible,” the California Democrat said during a House Administration Committee hearing. Lofgren is a member of the Administration panel, which was reviewing House committee budget requests for the 112th Congress.

“There are many cases where confidentiality is important, and it is going to be very difficult, I would say impossible, to do that given the current location” in the Longworth House Office Building, said Lofgren, who is no longer a member of the Ethics Committee. “I know even though the members are putting a good face on it … they would not condemn us for succeeding to move them.”

The Ethics Committee moved from its longtime offices in the basement of the Capitol to its new location in January as part of a larger reorganization that included the House Parliamentarian and the Appropriations Committee.

Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner sought to downplay criticism of the new offices, which are in a much more public location than the committee’s former space, but the Alabama Republican acknowledged that he would be open to another option.

“I would say on a positive note … one of the things that we hoped to do is to encourage people that there’s not a stigma attached to the committee. And if you are getting ready to make a trip or you are getting ready to get married and you want guidance, that you can come in … to where you can seek advice from the committee,” Bonner said.

But ranking member Linda Sánchez  (D-Calif.) said Ethics staff members have raised concerns that lawmakers could be targeted by the media merely for visiting the office.

“There are some concerns that they have that the space, particularly where some of the offices are located in very public areas, where Members are coming in for advice or guidance, if there are reporters in the hallway, they could draw wrong inferences from the fact that Members might just be seeking advice from the committee,” Sánchez said.

Lofgren also cited the new office’s proximity to the Longworth cafeteria and a smoking area as further impediments to the panel’s ability to conduct sensitive work.

“To think that you could have a confidential visit if a Member is planning to come in is just not possible,” she said. “Furthermore, the committee meeting room is right outside the smoking room, so when the committee meets — it’s not like the House Administration Committee or the Judiciary Committee, where you want the public to see — oftentimes it’s confidential matters, and that confidentiality is going to be very difficult to maintain.”

The matter of vacant positions on the Ethics Committee’s staff was also discussed. The panel has functioned without someone in its top post — that of staff director and chief counsel — since December, and Bonner said the committee is in the process of filling at least six vacancies. 

According to written testimony that Bonner submitted to the House Administration Committee, the Ethics panel expects to fill those posts — including a director of advice and education, advice and education counsel, and investigative counsel — in the “next few months.”

The committee has received 255 applications, according to Bonner. “There is a renewed interest,” he said.

Following the hearing, Bonner indicated that the committee is considering splitting the panel’s top post into two distinct jobs, both a staff director and a chief counsel, but said no decision has been made.

“In this case we need to make sure we’ve got the right person who is going to be a strong leader for the office,” he said.

Bonner declined to discuss the status of Deputy Chief Counsel Morgan Kim and attorney Stacey Sovereign, who have been on administrative leave from the panel since November. An attorney for both aides confirmed Tuesday that the two remain on the panel’s payroll.

“The full committee is working through the staffing resolution, and we hope to be able to announce something soon,” Bonner said.

Both Ethics aides had worked on the panel’s investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters. The California Democrat had been scheduled to face 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 in November that it had uncovered new evidence in the case. It suspended Kim and Sovereign that same day.