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Ethics panel recommends investigation of Rep. Mark Meadows

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). (Andrew Harnik/AP)

A congressional ethics panel said there is “substantial reason to believe” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), broke House rules by paying his departed chief of staff a three-month severance package in 2015.

The findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) were released by the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday. Committee heads said they will continue to review the allegations against Meadows.

Meadows has denied any wrongdoing, arguing through a lawyer that he acted in good faith, even if it turns out he broke the rules.

The allegations against Meadows stem from an unsavory situation in his congressional office. Meadows, a two-term congressman who once led a bid to oust then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), appointed his former GOP rival Kenneth West to his chief-of-staff job when he came to Congress in 2013. In late 2014, allegations began surfacing from female staffers in Meadows’s office that West’s behavior was making them uncomfortable. According to the OCE report, Meadows said he would take care of it — and swiftly did, making sure that West was no longer present around the office.

According to witnesses cited in the report, over the next few months, West’s work for Meadows significantly diminished. But it wasn’t clear whether Meadows had truly terminated West’s employment until April 2015, when he told his staff that West “was no longer Chief of Staff,” according to the report — suggesting he was no longer in Meadows’s employ. That month, Meadows referred to West as “gone” in an email to a staffer, the report found, and emailed around an official announcement saying he was looking for a new chief of staff.

In a November 2015 letter to the OCE, Meadows explained that he officially terminated West’s employment in May, offering to pay him as an adviser “for the sake of a smooth transition, and so he would continue to perform some official duties for me,” through August 2015. He called the arrangement “severance” pay, according to the OCE’s report.

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While severance packages might be standard practice in private companies, in Congress they are a prohibited use of taxpayer funds. According to the House Ethics Manual, staffers can be paid “only for duties performed within the preceding month,” and only if the staffer “has regularly performed official duties commensurate with the compensation received.”

The OCE investigation found employment records that Meadows had submitted terminating West’s employment and then extending it with a title change. But based on other records, emails and interviews with Meadows’s staffers, the OCE concluded that West did not appear to have done any official work from April 2015 on.

Meadows has objected to the entire exercise of an ethics review, pointing out through an attorney that he had self-reported the incident to the House Ethics Committee and arguing that “even if his ultimate interpretation of severance pay may have been in error, it was an interpretation taken in good faith.”

The OCE pointed out in its report that Meadows had not cooperated with their investigation. In May 2016 letter to House Ethics Committee leaders, Meadows’s attorney said he had opted not to engage in the “duplicative, costly and burdensome process” of the OCE review since the Ethics Committee “is the ultimate arbiter of compliance with House Rules and Standards of Conduct.”

But the OCE did not recommend the House Ethics Committee take Meadows’s actions in stride.

“There is substantial reason to believe that Representative Meadows retained an employee who did not perform duties commensurate with the compensation the employee received,” the report states.

A spokesman for Meadows said Wednesday that the congressman intends to cooperate with the House Ethics Committee going forward, and “is fully confident that the Committee will find that he acted in good faith.”