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Empty Ethics Posts Draw Critics’ Ire

Time is dwindling for House leaders to find and appoint candidates to fill at least four impending openings on the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics before year’s end so its investigative work can continue uninterrupted.

The vacancies, combined with House Republicans’ delay appointing a House Ethics Committee chairman for the next Congress after the heads of other panels were announced, has government-accountability groups worried that ethics issues may be marginalized.

“The election showed that the American people really care about ethics, but we all know that members of Congress don’t. The only way they’re going to do something is if they’re pushed,” said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

A bipartisan coalition of government watchdog groups is gathering on the Hill on Wednesday to highlight the ticking clock and urge leadership to move. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are responsible for filling two OCE vacancies each, with each other’s consent, and must also reauthorize the chairman, co-chairman and alternate members for the 113th Congress.

“Pelosi has offered us her assurances that she is going to fulfill her part  . . .  but when we get to Boehner there has been absolutely no response,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen said. “We need to get Boehner involved in this process.”

“Practically speaking, they are late. There are a lot of things on their plate, but it’s not like it’s a surprise that these appointments are required,” Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch said.

Though Boehner and Pelosi representatives both confirmed their commitment to the outside ethics office, neither offered specifics about the hiring process or whether it is under way.

“The Speaker intends to retain the Office of Congressional Ethics for the 113th Congress and to appoint an Ethics chair in a timely fashion,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wrote in an email.

“House Democrats are firmly committed to the continuation of the OCE and replacements will be named at the appropriate time,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote in an email.

Democratic leadership has already announced that Rep. Linda T. Sánchez of California will again be ranking member on the Ethics Committee. The office of outgoing Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., confirmed he is not interested in returning.

The bipartisan group gathering Wednesday includes Public Citizen, Judicial Watch, the Campaign Legal Center, CREW, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, the National Legal and Policy Center, the Sunlight Foundation, U.S. PIRG and Americans for Campaign Reform. The coalition will also send a letter to Boehner and Pelosi regarding the OCE vacancies.

“When they say ‘appropriate time,’ I think they mean that in the broadest sense. I think it’s quite possible that we’ll be into January when it actually happens, and they’ll make the argument ‘no harm, no foul,’” Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center said.

The OCE is a quasi-independent fact-finding agency created by the House in 2008 to review allegations of wrongdoing and spur the Ethics Committee into action. It conducts its reviews in two stages: a preliminary 30-day review, followed by a 45-day second-phase review that may be extended for an additional two weeks.

There are eight board members. A board member appointed by each party must initiate a preliminary probe; the approval of three, with a quorum of five voting, is needed to continue to the second phase. Four board members are needed to transmit the office’s findings to the Ethics Committee.

Even if the chairman, co-chairman and alternate board members are reauthorized, four board vacancies would prevent the office from proceeding to the second stage of any open matter, effectively ending the stream of cases it refers to the committee.

“Our letter [to Boehner and Pelosi] is brief and to the point. It  . . .  calls their attention to the fact that with half the board expiring, the agency is in danger of going defunct in the 113th Congress, and they certainly don’t want to see that happen,” Holman said.

As CQ Roll Call has reported, government-accountability groups on both sides of the aisle have largely praised the OCE’s work, following battles over its establishment and a subsequent period of acrimony between the office and the Ethics Committee.

The outside ethics office has also caught the attention of constituents outside the Beltway.

Christopher Finney, a Cincinnati-based attorney and active member of a Southern Ohio tea-party-aligned group known as COAST, says the OCE provides a path for constituents to hold their lawmakers accountable. Finney represented Democratic challenger David Krikorian in a series of legal disputes with outgoing Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, who was ordered to repay a Turkish-American interest group for hundreds of thousands of dollars of free legal assistance that the Ethics Committee eventually concluded was an impermissible gift.

“The case we brought against Jean Schmidt would have never moved forward had it not been for the OCE. It would be a terrible loss if it were not properly and fully constituted. I have confidence that [leadership] is serious enough about ethics and about their responsibility to the public that they’ll appoint people,” Finney said.

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