Resolution threatens power of Office of Congressional Ethics

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Friday, June 4, 2010

TALK ABOUT BLAMING the messenger. The newly created Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog set up to review and, if warranted, forward ethics complaints to the official House ethics committee for further action, has taken its mission seriously. Too seriously, it seems, for the comfort of some lawmakers. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), joined by 19 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, last week introduced a resolution that would essentially neuter the ethics board, making it more difficult for OCE to launch investigations and inform the public of its findings.

Ms. Fudge said in a statement that she acted to make the process fairer; OCE, she said, "is currently the accuser, judge and jury." It's not too hard to imagine other motivations for Ms. Fudge's concerns. Her chief of staff, Dawn Kelly Mobley, was admonished by the ethics committee for her role in helping a group of Black Caucus members improperly obtain an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caribbean -- this when Ms. Mobley was the ethics lawyer for Ms. Fudge's predecessor, the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Ms. Tubbs Jones was chairing the ethics committee. Four of the lawmakers who went on the Caribbean trip signed on to Ms. Fudge's resolution: Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.).

Undercutting OCE's authority would be backsliding. The point of creating an outside watchdog was to prevent the ethics committee from sweeping things under the rug; all those on the committee are members of Congress. The panel is too often inclined not only to dismiss a complaint but to do so quietly, without airing the evidence. Lawmakers are understandably concerned that the ethics process not be used to tar them unfairly, providing fodder for attack ads in the next election, but there is also a public interest in full disclosure and robust enforcement. So far, the OCE -- which is made up of former members of Congress and experts chosen by the speaker and minority leader in equal numbers -- has proved a helpful force, and the ethics panel's unhappiness with the arrangement only underscores its importance.

The Fudge resolution would prevent the ethics committee from issuing any public statement in cases where the OCE recommends that a complaint be dismissed; the existing rule gives the ethics committee discretion to release information in such situations. Under the resolution, the OCE's report on the defense earmarks-for-campaign-contributions lobbying scandal involving the PMA Group would never have seen the light of day. Similarly, the resolution would prevent the release of any OCE report if, after an investigation by the ethics committee, a complaint's dismissal is recommended; under the current rule, the OCE report must be made public. This change would have prevented release of OCE's findings in the Caribbean trip.

In addition, the resolution would prevent the OCE from looking into any matter except on the basis of "a sworn complaint from a citizen asserting personal knowledge of any alleged violation." Currently, a preliminary review can be launched if two board members from differing parties ask for it. The board members are hardly rogue operators. That Ms. Fudge and friends fear their power to launch an investigation says less about the new ethics office than it does about the sponsors of this misguided resolution.


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