Thursday, April 1, 2010;
AMONG THE many frustrating aspects of the congressional ethics process is the fact that, in the rare circumstances when the ethics committees seem poised to act against a member of Congress, lawmakers can short-circuit the inquiry by resigning. Once they're out the door, Congress loses its jurisdiction to discipline them.
Georgia Republican Rep. Nathan Deal might have had that solution in mind when he resigned March 21, just minutes before the ethics committee faced a deadline to act in his case. Fortunately for the citizens of his state, and unfortunately for Mr. Deal, a new ethics watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), did not drop the matter. The office, an independent panel created by a 2007 ethics and lobbying reform law, conducts investigations and makes recommendations for further action to the House Ethics Committee. Five days after Mr. Deal's resignation, the OCE voted to release the review it had sent in January to the ethics panel, finding "substantial reason to believe" that Mr. Deal, who is running for governor of Georgia, might have violated ethics rules.
The inquiry involved Mr. Deal's ownership of a lucrative automobile salvage business, Gainesville Storage & Disposal (GSD). In 2008, Georgia considered junking the existing inspection program and replacing the state inspectors, who had worked at GSD, with private-sector employees; in addition, new inspection stations would be allowed to compete with existing ones, such as GSD. Mr. Deal and his congressional chief of staff held three meetings with state officials in 2008 and 2009 to discuss the program -- including making requests to keep a permanent state inspector at the company -- and to criticize the proposed changes. Mr. Deal told OCE interviewers that he attended the meetings in his capacity as a "public servant."
The OCE found numerous potential ethics violations. It said that the inspection changes "concerned a purely state issue" that no other Georgia member of Congress had gotten involved in. Likewise, it said, the involvement of Mr. Deal's chief of staff and the staffer's use of House e-mail to talk about the meetings may have violated the prohibition on using House resources for private business. In addition, Mr. Deal reported $75,000 he received from GSD in 2008 as wages on his tax forms but listed that amount, which exceeded House rules on what lawmakers can accept as outside earnings, as unearned income on his congressional financial disclosure form.
Mr. Deal's conduct is troubling, but even more troubling is the thought that his actions could have remained hidden from Georgia voters if the OCE hadn't taken the unusual step of releasing the report post-resignation. The probe was exposed last year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but the OCE report adds details and, more important, the imprimatur of an official review. It underscores the importance of an outside investigative body and the limitations imposed on the body: Without subpoena power, the OCE was unable to interview the Georgia lieutenant governor, who had attended one of the meetings, and to obtain other information from state officials.
Mr. Deal told the OCE that he was acting against his financial interest in questioning the planned changes to the Georgia inspection program, which would have benefited him, and he dismissed the findings as "a political witch hunt fueled by Democrats."
Perhaps a final review would have found no wrongdoing by Mr. Deal; with his resignation, we'll never know. But given the bipartisan makeup of the ethics committee, with members appointed in equal number by the House speaker and the minority leader, Mr. Deal ought to come up with a better response.