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Why Did Petri Ask to Be Investigated? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I read that Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., has requested the House Ethics Committee to investigate himself. I know that members call for ethics investigations from time to time, but, I don’t recall if I’ve ever heard of a member asking for an investigation of himself. As I understand it, responding to an ethics investigation can be time-consuming and costly. Why would any member wish this upon himself? A. What you have read is correct. In a Feb. 16 letter to the House Ethics Committee, Rep. Tom Petri did indeed ask that the committee review Petri’s “ownership of stock in companies” as well as his “actions on their behalf,” both of which were the subject of news articles attached to the letter.  

One such article was a Feb. 8 Gannett Washington Bureau report about an investigation into Petri’s relationship with Oshkosh Corp., a defense contractor headquartered in Petri’s congressional district in Wisconsin. According to the report, Petri lobbied the Pentagon for defense funding, and helped Oshkosh retain a $3 billion truck-manufacturing contract it had secured from the Pentagon. Meanwhile, says the report, Petri owned hundreds of thousands of dollars of Oshkosh stock, and in fact purchased additional stock during the same period in which he was advocating on Oshkosh’s behalf.  

So, why would Petri ask for the Ethics Committee to investigate this? Well, that depends on whom you ask. In Petri’s letter, he says the reason for the request is “to end any questions.” “I am distressed by the innuendo in the articles,” the letter states. And, “[i]t is regrettable, but not surprising, that many are confused by the articles.” Some observers have commended Petri’s request as a shrewd political move, the message being that Petri has nothing to hide and looks forward to clearing his name. Indeed, the letter explains that Petri’s investments in Oshkosh and other businesses have all been disclosed in public forms he has submitted annually to the Ethics Committee. Moreover, the letter says, Petri’s actions were taken “openly” and from time to time he contacted the committee for guidance. Petri’s office has echoed this in statements since the letter, saying that Petri works on behalf of many constituents, and the fact that he happened to own stock in Oshkosh was beside the point. Indeed, on several occasions he informed the Pentagon of his stock ownership.  

But, public advocacy groups have a different take on Petri’s motivation for requesting an ethics investigation. Before Petri’s request, advocacy groups had already begun lobbying another entity to investigate Petri, the Office of Congressional Ethics. The OCE exists to screen allegations of misconduct by House members and staffers, and determine those that warrant further review by the Ethics Committee. Even before Petri’s request, groups Public Citizen and Just Foreign Policy had already said the OCE should investigate Petri over his Oshkosh relationship.  

By requesting the Ethics Committee investigate, Petri essentially bypassed the OCE process. An OCE investigation likely would have involved a review of documents and interviews of individuals with relevant information. After that, the OCE would determine whether to recommend that the Ethics Committee conduct its own investigation. The OCE has no power to issue discipline of its own.  

One potential advantage of Petri’s move, then, is that it could save time, and consequently money. Responding to government investigations of any kind is invariably a time-consuming, costly process. If the OCE review were destined to result in an Ethics Committee investigation anyway, Petri’s move means he will face just one investigation, instead of two. Moreover, if Petri expects the Ethics Committee will clear his name, from his perspective, the sooner that happens the better.  

The public advocacy groups have posited another possible explanation: minimizing publicity of the investigation. Craig Holman, for example, of Public Citizen, said that Petri has “sidestepped the public OCE process and asked the House ethics committee to directly take over any investigation … moving the scandal back into the shadows.” Indeed, while OCE investigation reports often become public, Ethics Committee investigations typically do not, except where the committee recommends discipline or concludes that other reasons warrant publishing an investigative report.  

Moreover, some have warned that Petri’s move might backfire. The last House member to ask for an ethics investigation of himself was Charles B. Rangel, in 2008. That investigation led to the Ethics Committee finding Rangel guilty of 11 ethics charges, resulting in a censure before the House. Of course, many believed that an investigation of Rangel was inevitable anyway, even without Rangel’s request.  

So, who is right: those lauding Petri’s move, or those questioning it? I’m afraid that’s beyond my area of expertise. Ultimately, the wisdom of and reasons for Petri’s decision are for others to assess. I do ethics. Not politics.  

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.

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