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What did the Senate Ethics Committee do last year?

The committee, mostly known for its inaction, issued no disciplinary sanctions on 138 complaints it received last year

The Senate Ethics Committee passed on a complaint against Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Senate Ethics Committee passed on a complaint against Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Ethics Committee, mostly known for how little action it takes, received 138 reports of violations of Senate rules in 2018, with zero resulting in a disciplinary sanction.

The committee has rarely taken action in recent years, and punishments are even more scarce. The ethics panel has jurisdiction over formal allegations of violations of the Senate Code of Official Conduct and violations of the rules and regulations of the Senate. It also has the authority to recommend disciplinary action and report violations of law to law enforcement.

The committee issued a “public letter of admonition” to Sen. Robert Menendez in April 2018, following a mistrial in a federal corruption case against the New Jersey Democrat. The admonishment was the first formal action taken by the committee in six years — a fact that has often led to criticism that the panel lacks rigorous oversight of senators’ conduct. Menendez’s letter of admonition was the only one — public or private — the panel issued in 2018.

Of the 138 reports of violations, the panel dismissed 120 of them. No Senate rules were broken in 109 situations, even if the complaint was true. And 11 cases lacked “sufficient facts as to any material violation of the Senate rules beyond mere allegation or assertion.”

Senate Ethics passed on taking up a complaint from an outside activist group against Sen. Cory Booker for allegedly breaking Senate rules on confidential documents during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

The complaint was filed with the committee in September by Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group. Senate Ethics declined to take up the complaint, which called on the panel to investigate Booker’s release of “committee confidential” documents, according to Judicial Watch.

“The committee carefully evaluated the allegations in the complaint and, based on all the information before it, determined that no further action is appropriate,” reads a Dec. 12 letter from Chief Counsel and Staff Director Sue Mayer to Judicial Watch, which the group posted on their website.

In September, as the Kavanaugh hearings were heating up, Booker announced he had ordered his staff to release an email before it had gone through a lengthy vetting process. That process was supposed to include the Judiciary Committee, National Archives, Justice Department and former legal staff of President George W. Bush reviewing and clearing, or withholding, documents from Kavanaugh’s time working for the 43rd president.

Booker said he was knowingly violating a Senate rule that could lead to his removal from the chamber.

“I knowingly violated the rules that were put forth,” Booker said, calling his move an act of “civil disobedience.”

Part of Rule 29 of the Senate states that any senator “who shall disclose the secret or confidential business or proceedings of the Senate, including the business and proceedings of the committees, subcommittees, and offices of the Senate, shall be liable, if a Senator, to suffer expulsion from the body.”

Booker dared Majority Whip John Cornyn to try and expel him, but that didn’t happen.

One reason the panel may have passed on the issue is that the Senate Judiciary Committee took their own action. Faced with a situation that threatened to get out of hand, and its members releasing confidential documents left and right, the panel released the documents in question, making most disciplinary action moot.

Committee staff conducted preliminary inquiries into 16 of the remaining cases, including three that carried into 2018 from the previous year. Nine were dismissed for “lack of substantial merit or because it was inadvertent, technical or otherwise of a de minimis nature.”

Any decisions made by the committee are unlikely to be driven by partisanship, as the Ethics Committee is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The last senator to receive a formal admonishment from the panel was former GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in 2012. The panel closed an inquiry into alleged sexual harassment by Minnesota Democrat Al Franken two years ago, when he resigned, one of 11 preliminary actions undertaken in 2017. 

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