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Ethics Committee Will Continue Reviewing Schock, Owens Matters

The House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it would continue reviewing cases it received from an outside ethics office concerning Reps. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., and Aaron Schock, R-Ill., but said it would do so without forming a formal investigative subcommittee.

The committee will examine a trip to Taiwan that Owens and his wife took in December of 2011 at the invitation of the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan and whether it was in fact arranged or paid for by lobbyists for the country’s government at Park Strategies, a firm founded by former Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York. Lobbyists are prohibited from arranging and financing most forms of lengthy congressional travel.

In the Schock case, the Ethics Committee will examine whether Shock’s request that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., contribute $25,000 to the anti-incumbent super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability to support then-Illinois Republican House candidate Adam Kinzinger was a possible violation of campaign finance law. Kinzinger won his race.

Wednesday’s announcement was triggered by a public disclosure mechanism in the ethics review process that requires the committee to make public statements after it receives a case from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. A report the office prepared on each of the two lawmakers was also released.

In the months since details of Owens’ Taiwan trip were first reported by ProPublica, the New York Democrat has said he acted in good faith, the money has been repaid and his staff has received training about proper travel procedures. The independent ethics office’s report on the matter, however, suggests that Owens was aware of Park Strategies’ role in planning the trip on behalf of the Taiwanese government before the plane took off.

Citing interviews, emails and other documents, ethics investigators with the office detail how the trip to Taiwan was first pitched to Owens by the country’s government via Park Strategies as one that would be appropriate under the “Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act.” When it became clear that such trips don’t allow family members, Owens’ office asked the House Ethics Committee for guidance on whether a “friend and business associate could pay for his wife’s travel expenses,” the report said.

When the idea was nixed, Park Strategies and its client, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, began searching for a private sponsor. “I need your kind help here in order to find a proper sponsor in the coming days!” read one email from a Taipei office representative to an Owens staffer.

In a letter to the Ethics Committee, Owens’ attorneys said the report piles “inference on supposition to reach unsupported and unsupportable allegations.” Perkins Coie attorney Brian Svoboda also alleges that the ethics office violated its own rules and ultimately “declares itself judge and jury” in the matter.

The OCE is a fact-finding agency that reviews allegations of wrongdoing and sends its findings to the Ethics Committee, which has the purview to determine wrongdoing and apply appropriate sanctions.

In the Schock report, the ethics office says there is “substantial reason to believe” House rules and the Code of Ethics were breached when he solicited “campaign contributions for an independent expenditure-only committee in excess of $5,000 per donor.”

The report cites Schock’s acknowledgement of the request in CQ Roll Call.

Schock’s attorney, Robert Kelner of Covington & Burling, wrote in a letter to the committee that there have been “novel issues of law raised in this matter” that should instead be resolved by the Federal Election Commission.

“In a matter such as this one that turns on a pure question of campaign finance law, and that relates to political activities having no connection to official duties, we respectfully submit that the FEC is the appropriate venue in which to resolve that legal question,” Kelner wrote.

Svoboda and Kelner are among a group of attorneys that has, in recent weeks, been in a tussle with the OCE over its rules and procedures.

Owens and Schock both said the developments were merely the latest phase in ongoing ethics processes that would eventually result in exoneration.

“I expect that ultimately it will result in an affirmation of my position that the trip was undertaken in the quest for jobs for my constituents and was done with every intention to comply with all applicable rules,” Owens said in a statement.

“The news from the House Ethics Committee today about a case involving Congressman Aaron Schock is in regards to the same complaint that has been covered in the media for nearly a year dealing with donations to a super PAC that was involved in the Kinzinger-Manzullo primary election last spring,” said Schock’s spokesman Steve Dutton, referring to an Illinois House primary between Kinzinger and former Republican Rep. Donald Manzullo. “We remain firmly convinced that Congressman Schock will be exonerated when the Ethics Committee examines the complaint and in due course resolves this matter.”

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