Crystal tea sets and $10,000 rugs presented to U.S. lawmakers by the State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan are just some of the headline-making revelations by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which House Republicans voted to neuter Monday night. They backed off Tuesday, after President-elect Donald Trump questioned their priorities, but could renew the effort later in the year.
Lawmakers might not miss a pesky, independent agency that monitors their finances, but the media would have lost a source of watchdog reporting if the GOP were to give members of Congress the authority to end OCE investigations, as they originally proposed Monday. Washington Post database editor Steven Rich noted on Twitter that a 2015 Post report on a lavish trip to Baku by 10 members of Congress that was funded by the Azerbaijani oil company was made possible by the work of the Office of Congressional Ethics.
This story would not have been possible without the Office of Congressional Ethics. https://t.co/T1bDc7RmrE— Steven Rich (@dataeditor) January 3, 2017
Here are three other notable news stories that have relied on probing by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which under the scuttled Republican plan would have lost the power to publicize its findings and make referrals to prosecutors.
Jesse Jackson Jr., Rod Blagojevich and pay-to-play politics
In 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics opened an investigation into whether Jackson, then a Democratic congressman from Illinois, tried to win an appointment to Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat by bribing Blagojevich, the state's governor at the time. Blagojevich was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2011 and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Jackson was not charged in that case, but OCE's probe began the unraveling of his political career. Here's what the Chicago Tribune wrote when Jackson resigned from Congress in 2012:
Jackson's political star was on the rise until allegations surfaced in late 2008 that his supporters offered to raise as much as $6 million for Blagojevich in return for the governor appointing him to the Senate seat vacated by the president-elect. Though Jackson was never charged in that case, a House ethics panel investigation into his actions was ultimately eclipsed by a federal criminal probe based in Washington, D.C., into alleged misuse of campaign dollars.
Rep. Alan Grayson's blurred lines
In a 986-page report published in April, the Office of Congressional Ethics concluded that “there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Grayson (D-Fla.) improperly allowed the use of his name by four entities connected to Rep. Grayson's hedge fund and Grayson Consulting Inc. of Virginia, and received compensation through management fees from the Grayson Fund Management Company.”
Blurring the line between his private interest and public responsibility was just part of Grayson's tumultuous — and ultimately unsuccessful — 2016 Senate campaign. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped Grayson would lose — and that was before Grayson's ex-wife accused him of domestic violence.
Spencer Bachus and the insider trading that wasn't
In 2011, the Office of Congressional Ethics found probable cause to believe that Bachus, then a Republican congressman from Alabama and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, might have been guilty of insider trading. After investigating the matter, however, OCE concluded that no violations occurred.
The Washington Post's Scott Higham put the case's significance into perspective at the time:
The case against Bachus was the first of its kind involving a member of Congress. It came at a time of intense public and media scrutiny of congressional ethics, with the House and Senate passing legislation this year to tighten rules against insider trading by lawmakers. President Obama has signed the measure into law.
Bachus didn't appreciate the public nature of the process, decrying what he called a “destructive and disruptive, media-generated assault,” on the day he was cleared of wrongdoing. But he also seemed to recognize OCE's value, saying that he wanted “to thank the OCE staff for their professionalism and the OCE board for unanimously coming to the right conclusion. While their review and report should never have been necessary, I am pleased that they have helped clear my name.”