Small of­fice has big job as mon­i­tor of ethics in the House

OCE staff some­times comes up against re­sis­tance to its work

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY SU­SAN CRAB­TREE

To many Washington out­siders, con­gres­sional ethics is an oxy­moron or fod­der for late-night co­me­di­ans, but watch­dogs and long­time Washington ob­servers point to one hopeful sign — an of­fice they be­lieve is help­ing mem­bers take ethics rules more se­ri­ously.

With a bud­get of just $1.5 mil­lion and a staff of nine, the Of­fice of Con­gres­sional Ethics (OCE), an in­de­pen­dent ethics board made up mostly of for­mer mem­bers of Congress, has been qui­etly and con­sis­tently chal­leng­ing the ethics sta­tus quo in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives since its cre­ation four years ago.

Some mem­bers have pushed back hard against the new ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tors, bit­terly com­plain­ing about their tac­tics, and have even led un­suc­cess­ful ef­forts to slash the of­fice’s fund­ing. But watch­dogs ar­gue the of­fice has helped shine a bright light of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity on the House ethics process, which was pre­vi­ously cloaked in se­crecy, fraught with pol­i­tics and had too of­ten be­come a black hole where al­le­ga­tions against mem­bers went to die.

“One of the prob­lems we’ve had with the ethics mess in the past is that for some years there was no en­force­ment at all of the rules and peo­ple just got care­less,” said Norm Orn­stein, a res­i­dent scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and a long­time po­lit­i­cal ob­server.

Mr. Orn­stein ad­vo­cated for the cre­ation for the OCE and has been im­pressed by so far.

The OCE was the brain­child of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, who pushed for an added layer of ethics over­sight de­spite strong op­po­si­tion from the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus and other se­nior mem­bers of her party af­ter Democrats won the ma­jor­ity in 2006 in the af­ter­math of the Abramoff lob­by­ing scan­dal.

But Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Re­pub­li­can, also de­serves credit for keep­ing the of­fice around over the com­plaints of many in the GOP rankand-file. When Repub­li­cans won back the ma­jor­ity in 2010, watch­dogs feared Mr. Boehner would qui­etly dis­man­tle the new of­fice, but skep­ti­cal tea party ac­tivists warned GOP lead­ers against any at­tempt to weaken House ethics rules.

The of­fice was cre­ated to serve as a grand jury of sorts, in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing and rec­om­mend­ing fur­ther ac­tion or dis­missal to the full ethics com­mit­tee. It was not given sub­poena power, and could not pun­ish mem­bers or even make final con­clu­sions as to whether law­mak­ers have bro­ken House rules.

De­spite these lim­i­ta­tions, the of­fice has con­ducted more in­ves­ti­ga­tions in three years than the full com­mit­tee has in more than a decade, send­ing 29 public re­fer­rals to the Ethics Com­mit­tee for fu­ture ac­tion.

Early in its ten­ure, the new of­fice in­ves­ti­gated pow­er­ful Rep. Charles Ran­gel, a New York Demo­crat, and five oth­ers over cor­po­rate-spon­sored trips to the Caribbean that vi­o­lated new travel rules, and that probe led to a string of fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment ac­cu­sa­tions that con­trib­uted to Mr. Ran­gel’s loss of his Ways and Means Com­mit­tee chair­man­ship.

Even when the Ethics Com­mit­tee has dis­re­garded the of­fice’s rec­om­men­da­tions, the scru­tiny has had an im­pact.

For in­stance, af­ter an OCE in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mem­bers’ mis­use of their travel per diems, the Ethics Com­mit­tee cleared all the mem­bers in­volved — but House lead­ers still clar­i­fied the travel rules and started en­forc­ing them.

“The irony is the OCE is work­ing much bet­ter than any of us re­ally thought it would,” said Mered­ith Mcgehee, pol­icy di­rec­tor of the Cam­paign Le­gal Cen­ter.

De­spite the out­side praise, the of­fice stoked re­sent­ment among mem­bers of Congress in 2010 by launch­ing a wide-rang­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of eight law­mak­ers’ fundrais­ers held with the fi­nan­cial ser­vices sec­tor in De­cem­ber 2009 within days of vot­ing on the Wall Street re­form bill.

The Ethics Com­mit­tee later cleared all in­volved, but House mem­bers com­plained that their names had been un­fairly sul­lied.

Omar Ash­mawy, a for­mer mil­i­tary pros­e­cu­tor who serves as the OCE’S staff di­rec­tor and chief coun­sel and has worked at the of­fice since its in­cep­tion, said ac­cu­racy and con­fi­den­tial­ity are the two prin­ci­ples the of­fice takes most se­ri­ously. “Ev­ery­thing we do is done with those two prin­ci­ples in mind,” he told The Washington Times.

“We are proud of the role that we’ve played in the House ethics process — in that we have per­formed ex­actly as the House ex­pected us to and the process has been work­ing,” he added.

As to law­mak­ers’ outrage over the fundrais­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Mr. Orn­stein said fundrais­ing has be­come so all­con­sum­ing in Washington and de­serves more ethics scru­tiny.

“This is the one place where I don’t mind fir­ing a shot across mem­bers’ bows once in a while,” he said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rep. Char­lie Ran­gel, New York Demo­crat, faced an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Of­fice of Con­gres­sional Ethics of cor­po­rate-spon­sored trips he took.

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