Nearly two years ago, when the House Ethics Committee issued its report on conflict of interest allegations against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), the panel made a suggestion: The House needed to more clearly define what constitutes a conflict of interest.
The committee in December 2012 “recommended that the conflict of interest rules be committed to a task force for review, and that the task force issue clear, thorough, and comprehensive rules pertaining to conflicts of interest that the House community can readily understand and abide by.”
An official task force was never formed, but the Ethics committee did convene a “working group” in May 2013 to “make recommendations for clarification.” (We’re told a “task force” is set up by House leadership, while a “working group” can be put together by a committee. Okay…)
This week, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics released a report on Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and allegations that he broke conflict of interests rules – the third such case in the last two years. Like in the first two, in Berkley’s and one involving Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the OCE recommended the House Ethics panel investigate further “as there is substantial reason to believe that Representative Petri improperly performed official acts on behalf of companies in which he had a financial interest, in violation of House rules and standards of conduct.”
Petri, who is not running for re-election, denies any wrongdoing. He advocated to the Defense Department on behalf of a large contractor in his district, of which he owned stock. But Petri says he was forthcoming about it and intervened to protect constituent jobs.
That’s the gray area. As a member of Congress, even if you have a financial or personal connection to a business or program in your district, isn’t it still your job to represent its interests? Some would say no, it’s a conflict of interest. Others would say those constituents still deserve representation.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, said such a task force “is sorely needed” to cut through ambiguity.
“Conflict of interest violations are some of the most troublesome and common ethics transgressions,” he said. “Currently the House Ethics process relies on formal complaints to expose such problems on a case-by-case basis. The Ethics Committee should play a more proactive role in uncovering current problems and provide clearer guidelines as to what constitutes conflicts of interest so members can avoid these pitfalls in the future.”
A spokeswoman at the House Ethics Committee declined to comment. The “working group” appears to still be working on it.