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Ethics expert: GOP ‘crosses the line’ with House hallway ambushes

DCCC complaint says NRCC violated ban on using official resources for campaigns

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., is chairman of the NRCC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., is chairman of the NRCC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Having video trackers shadow candidates to get campaign dirt has become a common tactic, but the National Republican Congressional Committee  went too far if it directed aides to ambush Democrats in House office buildings, experts on congressional ethics said.

Though a GOP spokesman called it “frivolous,” the experts said there was merit to a complaint filed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee against the chairman of the NRCC, Rep. Tom Emmer. It could lead to the Minnesota lawmaker facing an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

“The complaint details conduct that is clearly prohibited by federal law and House ethics rules that bar campaign activity in House buildings,” Bryson B. Morgan, a lawyer who worked as an investigative counsel for the Office of Congressional Ethics from 2013 through 2015, told CQ Roll Call in an email. “If the Office of Congressional Ethics determines that NRCC Chairman Rep. Emmer was involved in or knew of this effort, I would expect the matter to be referred by OCE to the Ethics Committee.”

Meredith McGehee, executive director of the government watchdog group Issue One, called the complaint “worthwhile.” She said filming members of Congress for political purposes is very common as a tactic.

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“But to have the party committees do it — it crosses a line,” McGehee said.

A complaint sent to OCE on Monday alleges that Emmer violated House rules when the NRCC repeatedly filmed Democrats in the halls of Congress, which are considered official resources, for campaign or political purposes and in violation of chamber rules and federal law.

If the OCE investigation finds that there is a “substantial reason” to believe a violation occurred, the matter would be referred to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of an equal number of Democratic and Republican members. Unlike OCE, the Ethics Committee possesses subpoena power, can determine if a violation occurred, and has the power to discipline members.

Campaign-free zones

House rules say that office buildings paid for by the taxpayers, including those connected by tunnels and subways to the Capitol, are off limits for campaign activity.

“The House buildings, and House rooms and offices — including district offices — are supported with official funds and hence are considered official resources,” House rules state. “Accordingly, as a general rule, they may not be used for the conduct of campaign or political activities.”

As an example, the House Ethics Manual notes that a member “may not film a campaign commercial or have campaign photos taken in a congressional office.”

Because making calls from a member’s office to seek campaign contributions would violate the rules, both the DCCC and the NRCC have offices a short walk from the Capitol that members can, and do, use for campaign-related activity during free time while Congress is in session. 

OCE has previously referred matters involving the misuse of videos and photos in House buildings to the Ethics Committee . In 2018, OCE noted that Ohio GOP Rep. James B. Renacci’s campaign social media accounts may have posted videos and photos that were photographed or filmed in official House buildings.

OCE recommended that House Ethics further review the allegations into the Ohio Republican. But the committee delayed action until Renacci — who lost a bid for Senate in 2018 — was no longer a House member, and therefore not under the committee’s jurisdiction.

The DCCC and NRCC are political committees dedicated to increasing their parties’ representation in the House. The DCCC’s complaint asks for OCE to investigate the NRCC, but OCE only has jurisdiction over members and employees of the House, not party committees. As such, Emmer, as chairman, would be the one who would come under scrutiny if OCE chooses to pursue an investigation.

House rules mandate that a member “take reasonable steps to ensure that any outside organization over which he or she exercises control — including the individual’s own authorized campaign committee or, for example, a ‘leadership PAC’ — operates in compliance with applicable law.”

Questions on Iran, impeachment

Videos posted to the NRCC’s Twitter account show someone asking Democrats politically charged questions in House office buildings on Jan. 9. In the videos, someone asks Democrats — including Reps. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, and Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey —whether Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed in a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump, was a terrorist. 

Other videos posted and retweeted on the NRCC’s Twitter account were recorded in a House office building the day after Trump was impeached. They show people asking Democrats, including Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, why the House did not immediately send the impeachment articles to the Senate.

“Congresswoman, how do you feel now that you voted yourself out of office?” Craig is asked on the video.

Another video shows Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois walking through the Cannon House Office Building and being asked, “Congresswoman Underwood, why are you posing as a fake nurse?”

Finkenauer, Craig, Kim, Sherrill and Underwood are all freshmen who flipped Republican-held seats in 2018 and are targeted by the NRCC for defeat in November.

Complaint ‘frivolous’

A spokesperson for Emmer’s congressional office referred questions seeking comment to the NRCC. Chris Pack, an NRCC spokesman, did not answer questions about Emmer’s knowledge of the video recordings and did not provide a response from Emmer.  Pack did provide a statement aimed at the chairwoman of the DCCC, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois.

Cheri Bustos will soon find out she should have done a little homework on the actions of DCCC and her fellow members before filing this frivolous ethics complaint,” Pack said in an email.

In response, DCCC spokeswoman Robyn Patterson said: “Their veiled threat won’t change the fact that Congressman Emmer and his staff have violated Congressional ethics rules and belligerently inhibited the people’s work.”

This was not the first time the DCCC and NRCC have exchanged jabs. In October, the NRCC sent packing boxes to the Capitol Hill offices of Democrats in battleground districts, suggesting they will have to pack up and leave their offices after the next election. Most of those Democrats flipped Republican districts in 2018 and are likely to face competitive races this year. Some offices alerted Capitol Police about what they thought were suspicious packages.

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