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OCE Stayed Busy in Late 2011

The Office of Congressional Ethics lost no steam at the end of last year, reviewing four new matters during the fourth quarter of 2011. In prior years the number of cases opened during the same period had dwindled.

The independent agency opened a total of 22 matters during 2011, including 7 that were sent to the House Ethics Committee for further review. Three of those referrals occurred in the fourth quarter when the office recommended that the committee look at matters involving Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).

The committee cleared Young’s use of related donations made to a legal defense fund, continues to investigate Hastings without a formal investigative subcommittee and is expected to make its announcement concerning the status of Buchanan’s case on Feb. 6.

The OCE is a quasi-governmental agency established by the House in 2008 to review allegations of misconduct and refer its findings to the Ethics Committee, which has the authority to clear, sanction or further investigate the misconduct of Members and staffers.

The OCE conducts its investigations in two stages: a 30-day preliminary review, followed either by dismissal or a 45-day second-phase review that can be extended for an additional 14 days. Two board members — one appointed by the Speaker, one by the Minority Leader — can authorize a preliminary review and three members of the board can authorize the second-review stage.

Once the office completes its consideration of a matter, it refers the case to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review or dismissal. A referral for further review triggers a 45-day window in which the committee must release the OCE’s findings or issue a public statement that it is extending its consideration of the case for another 45-day period. At that point, the report is released unless the committee forms a formal investigative subcommittee.

The OCE publishes a statistical summary of its work on a quarterly basis. During the fourth quarter of 2011, in addition to beginning four preliminary reviews, OCE began five second-phase reviews and extended four. About 75 private citizens contacted the office during that time period to request information or pass along allegations of misconduct.

Correction, Jan. 27

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of matters OCE began reviewing in 2011.

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