The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No special ethics investigation of Cathy McMorris Rodgers, committee says

The fourth-ranking House Republican improperly used taxpayer funding to pay for her campaign for a GOP leadership post and for other campaign-related activities, according to allegations detailed in a new congressional watchdog report.

But the House Ethics Committee stopped short of establishing a special committee to further investigate the allegations against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the committee's leaders said Monday. It is unknown when the mostly secret committee might take further action.

McMorris Rodgers, 44, is a five-term lawmaker who was selected to deliver the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union in January.

The committee received a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics in late December detailing how McMorris Rodgers used taxpayer funding to fly her staff to and from Washington on official time despite also working on campaign-related activities. A former communications director and consultant also detailed for investigators how they would write campaign press releases and speeches and prepare the congresswoman for campaign debates while on official time. The report details how in several instances in 2012, McMorris Rodgers's senior staffers mixed official and campaign travel and duties in the lawmaker's congressional offices on Capitol Hill and in Spokane, Wash. Over several months in 2012, the communications consultant was paid with funds from a campaign super PAC for helping McMorris Rodgers with official duties, the report said.

All of the allegations appear to violate House ethics and standards of conduct, the report said.

Separate of her campaign activities, the report lays out how McMorris Rodgers also improperly mixed official and campaign resources to win election as chair of the House Republican Conference, the caucus's messaging shop. The position makes McMorris Rodgers the fourth-ranking House Republican and the most senior woman in GOP congressional leadership. As part of the congresswoman's campaign for the leadership post, staffers helped select content for an information packet and video designed to promote her candidacy to colleagues. The activities also violated standards of conduct, according to the report.

Elliot S. Berke, McMorris Rodgers's attorney, said in a 49-page response to the OCE that congressional staff did the campaign work voluntarily. "At no time has any employee ever been coerced into doing any campaign work," he said.

As part of its decision, the Ethics Committee reserves the right to establish a separate panel to further investigate the charges. The move announced Monday, known as "Committee Rule 18(a)," is similar to what happened to then-Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). When Andrews faced allegations of improperly using campaign funds to pay for personal travel, the ethics panel kept the investigation open and later established a separate panel to further investigate the charges. Andrews resigned last month as the investigation was reportedly nearing its conclusion.