Members of the House Administration Committee on Tuesday turned the tables on the independent agency tasked with investigating ethics complaints against members by grilling its director over alleged ethical breaches.
Omar Ashmawy, Office of Congressional Ethics staff director and chief counsel, fielded a flurry of questions from the committee’s Oversight subpanel about two drinking-related incidents from the last decade, as well as larger queries by the subcommittee’s GOP members about a perceived lack of transparency and over-politicization of the OCE.
“I would say the head of the OCE is also human and in my case it turns out I’m an alcoholic,” Ashmawy said in his testimony. He said he’d recently completed a six-month outpatient treatment program and continues to submit to urine tests that can detect the use of alcohol.
He’s remained with the OCE for 14 years, despite two alcohol-related incidents.
In 2015, he was allegedly involved in a drunken bar fight after assaulting and verbally abusing two women in Pennsylvania, according to a lawsuit brought against him after the incident. Ashmawy maintains he was the victim in the incident and was never arrested or charged with a crime, though he settled the suit out of court.
Ashmawy sent emails from his work account to police and prosecutors investigating the case, which independent counsel later deemed could’ve been perceived as intimidation. Ashmawy said he didn’t see any ethical issues with his emails at the time, but didn’t dispute the findings that his messages were inappropriate.
And in September 2022, Ashmawy was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and three other violations after veering off the road, running over a stop sign, hitting two parked cars and then crashing into the front porch of a house in Pennsylvania.
“Substance abuse is an issue impacting Americans across the country, and I encourage all who need help to seek it,” said Oversight Subcommittee Chair Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., at the hearing. “There is no shame in asking for help. However, Mr. Ashmawy is in a position to pass judgment on the behaviors of members, officers and staff.”
Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, one of 35 groups who sent a letter Monday to the committee urging the protection of the nonpartisan OCE, said the panel “misfired” Tuesday. He noted the committee had a series of productive hearings that led to the leaders of the Architect of the Capitol and the Congressional Research Service departing after coming before the committee.
The subcommittee is “focusing not on how ethics in Congress might be strengthened but instead at times on smearing the independent watchdog’s reputation,” Schuman said. “The attacks underscored the importance of OCE’s independence from Congress, which at times views ethical accountability as a burden they’d prefer to shed.”
Established in 2008, the office is responsible for reviewing allegations of misconduct against members and staff of the House. The OCE is overseen by an independent board composed of six members and two alternates, appointed in part by the speaker and the minority leader. The office does not have subpoena power or the authority to discipline members, but it can refer matters to the House Committee on Ethics, which can.
In its 14 years, the OCE has initiated 242 cases and resolved 228 of them, according to written testimony submitted by OCE Board Chair Paul Vinovich and Co-Chair Mike Barnes, who appeared alongside Ashmawy.
Of those, the board has made a referral to the Ethics Committee for further review 104 times — 52 involved Republicans and 52 involved Democrats — a coincidence that the OCE board members said underscores the office’s nonpartisan approach.
Republican House Administration members repeatedly asserted that the panel had become partisan.
Loudermilk asserted that “political groups have weaponized the office to file complaints as a way of generating negative headlines, regardless of the merits of the complaint, to achieve a desired political outcome.”
They noted a 2015 incident in which the Washington Post reported on the details of an OCE investigation into lawmakers taking a dubious all-expenses paid trip overseas months before the report on the probe became public.
Ashmawy said the incident was investigated and no leaker within the OCE was found.
“Your investigations have never found a leaker? Because I’m telling you, many members of Congress believe your office leaks information,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said.
The hearing comes after Democrats and ethics advocacy groups raised concerns in January about the office’s future upon the adoption of a Republican rules package that critics said chipped away at the watchdog’s ability to function.
The rules imposed a two-term limit for board members. It required the board to appoint OCE staff, and set their compensation, within 30 days of the House’s adoption of the rules resolution.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., quickly filled slots on the OCE board ahead of the deadline, enabling the office to continue functioning. But Demand Progress, other signees of the Monday letter and OCE board members each said the rule could kneecap the oversight agency if not reversed.
“While the Board was appointed within 30 days in this Congress, past experience indicates that such a timely appointment is the exception and cannot be guaranteed from one Congress to another,” Vinovich and Barnes said in their written testimony. “Accordingly, a delay in the appointment of Board members might result in a Board unable to appoint staff within the required timeframe — effectively, and inadvertently, dismissing all staff.”
Supporters of the OCE argue an independent investigative body is necessary to keep lawmakers in line, especially with a House Ethics Committee that is “known for its opacity and historical failures to take action on matters for many years,” the advocacy groups wrote in their letter.
Loudermilk, however, argued that there is little transparency about what cases OCE decides to open and pointed out that there is no equivalent body to oversee the Senate.
“This calls into question: If the Senate doesn’t need a similar entity, what value does OCE add to transparency and accountability that the House Ethics Committee doesn’t already provide?” Loudermilk asked. “If it’s not meeting its intended purpose, what reforms must be made to ensure there is effective and nonpartisan accountability?”