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McCarthy gavel investigation ends without a bang

No evidence former speaker violated laws with request to turn fallen trees into gavels, probe finds

Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., takes the gavel after securing the speakership on the 15th ballot in January 2023.
Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., takes the gavel after securing the speakership on the 15th ballot in January 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

An agency watchdog did not find evidence to support an allegation that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy broke federal laws when he requested carpenters in the Architect of the Capitol create eight gavels from fallen trees on the campus.

The California Republican hasn’t been a member of Congress for months, but the AOC’s Office of Inspector General investigated the claim, which surfaced as part of an internecine drama at the usually low-profile legislative branch agency.

Requests like McCarthy’s to repurpose fallen wood have gone on for years, an April 10 watchdog report found. While the process doesn’t save taxpayer money, the evidence did not prove that McCarthy improperly used government funds, the report states.

The watchdog referred the matter to the House Committee on Ethics to determine whether McCarthy violated the House Code of Official Conduct. But the referral isn’t likely to amount to much, according to Daniel Schuman, governance director at the POPVOX Foundation.

“It is extraordinarily unlikely that the House Ethics Committee would start an investigation based on the referral,” Schuman said. “If there were an ongoing investigation, they would most likely end it at the departure of the member.”

[‘Success after success after success’: Allies say goodbye to Kevin McCarthy]

The inspector general investigation confirmed that eight gavels were made and delivered to McCarthy. Then it sought to find out if McCarthy intended to use the gavels as gifts.

“All witnesses interviewed in the course of this investigation stated that they believed the gavels would be used for official purposes only. No one claimed to have any knowledge that Speaker McCarthy planned to, or did, give gavels away as gifts,” the inspector general wrote.

“One witness stated they were aware that the gavels were used on the House floor until McCarthy was removed from the position of Speaker,” the report states. “They did not know what became of the gavels when McCarthy left office.”

The inspector general added the gavels were not “accountable AOC property” and not traceable once they were given to the then-speaker.

McCarthy, who was ousted from the speakership in October by a faction of rebellious Republicans with the support of most House Democrats, could not be reached for comment.

The AOC’s inspector general launched the investigation in January after claims about the gavels, reported in Roll Call and Politico, surfaced in a lawsuit filed by a former employee.

The lawsuit came after years of upheaval at the agency. President Joe Biden removed former Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton in February 2023 in the wake of a damning inspector general report that detailed abuses of the office that cost taxpayers an estimated $14,000.

Other agency leaders followed Blanton out the door in subsequent months. And five of those former employees are now taking legal action against the AOC, claiming various forms of employment discrimination.

One complaint was filed by Christine Leonard, the agency’s former director of legislative and public affairs. Leonard claimed there was a sexist and corrupt culture in the agency, and she also alleged other misdeeds such as the request from McCarthy’s office for gift gavels.

At the time, a former McCarthy aide familiar with the interactions said the agency made gavels for offices as a practice and that McCarthy did not ask for any as gifts.

The probe found that congressional “requests for items, particularly gavels, made from trees that have fallen or been cut down on Capitol grounds go back years.”

But the watchdog wasn’t thrilled about the idea from a good-government standpoint. “While it would seem that using wood from these trees is a simple matter that saves taxpayer money, our investigation found it is actually the opposite,” the inspector general wrote.

“While AOC personnel in the Carpentry Section are capable of crafting gavels, and have done so for years, much of the wood that is recovered from Capitol campus trees is unsuitable for that use,” the report states. “Additionally, the AOC lacks the necessary space and resources to dry and process large pieces of wood.”

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