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OCE Board Members Face Expiring Terms

In the four years since the Office of Congressional Ethics opened its doors, it has earned the quiet respect of its skeptics.

But now some of the very people who feared the office would not be able to accomplish its mission are worried that a disruption in leadership could hamper its  nascent success.

The idea of establishing an office to monitor Congressional wrongdoing was never a popular one. The bipartisan task force that studied the issue fractured along party lines. Government groups jumped ship from negotiations, believing the office had been stripped of essential powers. A dramatic House vote was held open in order to wrangle enough votes for the resolution creating the office to pass.

Now, the terms of at least half of the office’s eight board members will expire at the end of this Congress, and they cannot be reappointed, creating the first mandated turnover since the office was created. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) must fill the open board slots. Though both have pledged continued support for the OCE, neither has detailed a plan for the appointment process.

“No decisions have been made about who will be appointed or reappointed at this point, but it’s obviously an issue that our office is aware of and working on,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said.

Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The vacuum of information is making ethics observers nervous.

Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen is planning a public campaign to force the issue during the upcoming weeks. A “shortlist” of recommended appointees is in the works. He plans to ask both Boehner and Pelosi for a meeting.

“The problem here is that they could let [the OCE] die without any fingerprints,” the Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee said.

The Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen were among the groups that stopped working with the task force after finding out the ethics office would not be given the power to subpoena testimony and documents, among other functions.

McGehee, Holman and even some who opposed the creation of the OCE in the first place now praise what the scrappy office has managed to accomplish, largely crediting its board members and staffers.

“What has happened, much to my delight, is the people who have run OCE have done a phenomenal job,” Holman said. “The OCE was given one important power, which is that once it produces a report, it does become public at some point in time. OCE has used that public disclosure tool very effectively.”

“I’ve gotten the general impression that they’ve done a credible job and they’ve been very conscientious. I’m pleasantly surprised, I guess,” said Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Roll Call contributing writer. Wolfensberger testified against the creation of the OCE.

The OCE is a quasi-independent fact-finding entity that reviews allegations of wrongdoing within the House. It conducts its reviews in two stages: a 30-day preliminary review, followed by a 45-day second-phase review that may be extended for an additional 14 days. At that point, the board votes to send the matter to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review or dismissal. The votes are nearly always unanimous.

If the office recommends further review, the committee must typically release a report on the OCE’s findings after a 45-day period, which can be extended by another 45 days, unless it forms an investigative subcommittee to look into the matter.

The office opened 69 cases during the 111th Congress and sent 22 to the Ethics Committee for further review. At least 32 preliminary reviews have commenced during the 112th Congress, and 10 of those needed further review by the committee. The reports on at least 32 lawmakers and House staffers have already or will eventually be released to the public.

Some of the committee’s most high-profile cases – those of Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.), Laura Richardson (Calif.) and Shelley Berkley (Nev.), and Republican Reps. Jean Schmidt (Ohio) and Vern Buchanan (Fla.) – have originated in the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Though the Ethics Committee would likely have undertaken some of the same investigations on its own, the OCE has, in the eyes of its supporters, restored integrity to a Congressional ethics process that had become broken.

“It’s done what it was supposed to do, which was bring credibility back,” said Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired the task force.

The office has also shed sunlight on an ethics process that was previously shrouded in mystery. “The OCE lifts the curtain a bit,” McGehee said.

And now the curtain has been lifted, ethics observers don’t want to see it closed.

The OCE needs its board to vote on opening and referring cases. It took Boehner and Pelosi more than four months in 2008 to get the board in place, and Holman and others want to get the replacement process started.

Waiting to take the issue up after the elections is getting “dangerously late,” Holman said.

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