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Office of Congressional Ethics Handling Fewer Cases

The Office of Congressional Ethics began just 13 investigations in the first half of 2011, about a third of the number of cases that it opened during the same period last year, according to a report released by the office Monday.

Though fewer cases were opened than during the first half of 2010, when the office commenced a preliminary review of 44 matters, the OCE has increased the number of cases referred to the House Ethics Committee for further consideration.

Of the five cases that the OCE had referred to the Ethics Committee as of June 30, it recommended four needed further investigation and one should be dismissed. In the same period last year, the OCE had recommended only one case for further review and suggested the dismissal of five others.

The OCE, which is an independent agency established by the House in 2008 to review allegations of misconduct and refer matters to the House Ethics Committee, publishes a statistical summary of its work on a quarterly basis.

The OCE conducts its investigations in two stages: a 30-day preliminary review, followed by a 45-day second-phase review that can be extended for an additional 14 days.

Of the 13 inquiries that the office has initiated since the beginning of the year, one was terminated during the initial 30-day review period. An additional six cases have entered a second phase of review, meaning the office will ultimately recommend to the Ethics Committee that they should either be investigated further or dismissed.

Some of the OCE investigations in prior years involved multiple Members, which may inflate the apparent gap between the office’s caseload in 2010 and 2011.

For example, among the inquiries being considered last June was a probe into the fundraising practices of seven lawmakers: Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Mel Watt (D-N.C.), and Tom Price (R-Ga.). On Jan. 26, the Ethics Committee announced it would take no further action in those matters.

Another case under review at that point was a probe into travel per diems used by Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). The Ethics Committee likewise declined to pursue the matters further.

Though the office does not publicly discuss its investigations or identify the individuals under review in its quarterly report, a recent statement released by the Ethics Committee confirmed that the four individuals referred for further action during the past quarter were Reps. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and two staffers.

In February, an attorney representing Schmidt confirmed that the OCE was investigating the Congresswoman’s receipt of legal assistance from a Turkish-American interest group. A Democratic challenger, David Krikorian, filed multiple complaints against Schmidt with the OCE alleging that the legal services were provided for free and violated House ethics rules.

The New York Post has reported that Meeks repeatedly omitted information from his annual financial disclosure forms, including that his spouse received income from a public relations and advocacy firm and the City University of New York’s Queens College. Members are required to disclose the source of spousal income if it exceeds $1,000 in a calendar year but not the amount.

The Ethics Committee’s July 1 statement was triggered by a disclosure element in the OCE investigation process.

If the office refers a matter to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review, the committee must release the findings of the OCE report after 45 days or issue a public statement that it is extending consideration of the matter for another 45-day period.

The committee has until Aug. 16 to announce whether it will proceed with formal investigations of Schmidt and Meeks. The OCE reports on the lawmakers will be released to the public at that point unless an investigative subcommittee is formed to consider the matters under consideration.

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