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Ethics Office Launching Fewer Cases Than a Year Ago

The Office of Congressional Ethics began five new investigations in the third quarter of 2011, bringing the total number of preliminary ethics inquiries begun in the 112th Congress to 18, according to a report released by the office today.

Fewer cases have been opened than during the same period in 2010, when the independent office initiated 44 matters, but the proportion of cases the OCE has referred to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further action is higher than in previous years.

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 because matters are tracked by the individuals involved.

For example, among the inquiries considered last year was a probe into the fundraising practices of seven lawmakers and another into travel per diems used by six Members. The Ethics Committee declined to pursue either matter further.

Of the five cases that the OCE has passed on to the Ethics Committee in the first three quarters of 2011, it recommended that four needed further review and that one should be dismissed. In the same period last year, the OCE recommended the dismissal of nine matters and the further review of nine others.

Although the office did not send any cases to the Ethics Committee during the third quarter, it noted that the board voted to refer two matters that were not finalized until after the quarter had ended. Those two cases will show up in the office’s fourth-quarter report.

The OCE is a fact-finding agency established by the House in 2008 to review allegations of misconduct and refer matters to the House Ethics Committee, which can determine appropriate sanctions. The office 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 may be extended by 14 days. At that point, the office sends the matter to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review or dismissal.

During the third quarter, the office voted to terminate two matters after its preliminary review, started the second-phase review of four cases and commenced a 14-day extension on five matters. Each of the matters in the second-review phase will ultimately be referred to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation to investigate further or dismiss.

If the office refers a matter 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, at which point the OCE report is made available to the public.

When the Ethics Committee announced in August, for example, that it would “accept OCE’s recommendation for further review of an allegation” that Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) “failed to disclose a payment he received in 2007 in a timely manner,” it triggered the automatic disclosure of the OCE’s report on Meeks.

Although the committee concluded at the same time that it would not sanction Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) for accepting legal services that constituted an improper gift because she was not aware an outside group was paying for her attorneys, the OCE report on Schmidt was likewise released because the office had referred her matter to the committee for further investigation.

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