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House Ethics Committee investigating Reps. Cawthorn, Jackson, Mooney

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) in Orlando on Feb. 26, 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

The House Ethics Committee said Monday that it is investigating a trio of GOP lawmakers over allegations ranging from accepting a “free or below-market-value trip” to Aruba to engaging in an improper relationship with a staffer.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), is a freshman who lost his GOP primary battle last week. The other two are Reps. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.) and Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.).

In a statement, the ethics panel noted that the announcement of an investigation “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee.”

In Cawthorn’s case, all 10 Democrats and Republicans voted unanimously to establish an investigative subcommittee into the embattled North Carolina Republican’s actions. The subcommittee is tasked with determining whether Cawthorn “improperly promoted a cryptocurrency in which he may have had an undisclosed financial interest, and engaged in an improper relationship with an individual employed on his congressional staff,” the committee said.

Cawthorn has denied wrongdoing, but it was not enough for GOP voters who rejected him from serving another term after citing his lack of maturity. He has run afoul of the law for carrying a weapon at the airport and traffic violations.

The announcement comes after a super PAC this month formally asked for Cawthorn to be investigated on seven possible violations of House ethics rules. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of his chief critics, also last month urged the ethics panel to probe whether Cawthorn engaged in insider trading of cryptocurrency involving a phrase that is code for a profane expression against President Biden.

The ethics committee met this month to discuss the misdemeanor charges filed against Cawthorn in North Carolina for several instances of speeding and driving with a revoked license. The panel ultimately decided to take no further action on that issue, noting that “the handling of this matter by local authorities is sufficient.” It did not say Monday whether its launching of an investigation into the two other allegations was in response to the requests by Tillis and the super PAC.

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The investigation would probably run until the end of the term, which is when Cawthorn would return to private life. It could end before then if Cawthorn decides to resign from office early, but it would not prevent the committee from releasing its findings.

In Jackson’s case, the Texas Republican’s campaign committee “reported campaign disbursements that may not be legitimate and verifiable campaign expenditures attributable to bona fide campaign or political purposes,” the Office of Congressional Ethics said in recommending that the matter be further investigated.

The Federal Election Commission prohibits the use of campaign funds for memberships in country clubs and similar organizations. There is “substantial reason to believe” that Jackson used his congressional campaign funds to “pay for unlimited access to the Amarillo Club, a private dining club located in Amarillo, Texas,” the OCE said.

An attorney for Jackson maintained that the congressman’s use of the facility was purely for campaign purposes.

“Neither Congressman Jackson nor any members of his family have utilized any benefits of the Amarillo Club other than dining and meeting spaces for campaign purposes,” the lawyer, Justin R. Clark, said in a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics in January. “Accordingly, all expenses at issue were made by Texans for Ronny Jackson for campaign purposes.”

The House Ethics Committee also published a report on Mooney, who this month won the primary race for the GOP nomination for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District.

The report said the committee would continue to review several allegations against Mooney, including that he may have accepted a “free or below-market-value trip” to Aruba, used a campaign vendor’s Washington property as a free source of lodging, converted campaign funds to personal use and pressured congressional staffers to run personal errands for his family.

Mooney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The committee investigated a March 2021 trip Mooney took with his family to Aruba, where they stayed at the Ritz-Carlton and had nearly all of their lodging, meals, drinks and amenities paid for by HSP Direct, one of Mooney’s campaign vendors. According to the report, HSP Direct’s payment for the Mooney family vacation totaled nearly $11,000, “included private poolside cabanas, guided tours and activities, and at least one banquet,” and “likely constitutes an impermissible gift under House rules.”

Mooney also appeared to pay for his return flight to the United States with campaign funds, which would have been in violation of campaign financing laws, and he probably violated both House rules and federal law by enlisting his congressional staff to plan for his family’s Aruba vacation on official time, the committee found.

According to the report, Mooney refused to cooperate with the review by withholding documents related to the trip. However, the ethics committee was able to obtain documents and witness testimony on their own from both HSP Direct and from Mooney’s former and current staff members.

“[T]o the extent he claims the gift was permissible under a personal friendship or hospitality exception to the gift rule, those exceptions would not apply here,” the report stated. “Instead, it appears it was only after 2020, when Rep. Mooney began paying HSP Direct tens of thousands of dollars for campaign services, that he and his family were invited on such a trip. Based on the foregoing, the Board finds that there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Mooney accepted impermissible gifts.”

The committee also investigated Mooney’s use of a house near Capitol Hill owned by HSP Direct that the lawmaker stayed at free of charge around 20 times between 2015 and 2021, and that Mooney’s wife and children also stayed in when visiting Washington. In addition, Mooney and his staff reportedly used the “HSP House,” as it was known, to conduct both campaign and official work, and to host events free of charge.

“Given the house’s Capitol Hill location and the guests who frequent it — namely HSP clients like Rep. Mooney — the house appears to be used for a business purpose. As a result of this business purpose, Rep. Mooney’s use of the house likely does not qualify for the personal hospitality exception to the gift rule,” the committee wrote in its report.

The report also included interviews with former and current staff members from Mooney’s office who said they were frequently asked to complete “unofficial tasks” for him and his family, which would also be a violation of House gift rules in the form of “uncompensated personal services from subordinate staff.”

“The tasks ranged from babysitting, to automotive repair work on personal vehicles, to assisting Rep. Mooney and his wife with their personal finances and businesses. Staff members were almost never compensated for this work and frequently were required to divert time from campaign or official congressional business to complete these tasks,” the committee wrote in its report, adding that while some staff volunteered for some tasks, employees “more commonly reported feeling pressure to accede to the Mooney family’s requests or risk angering Rep. Mooney and potentially losing their jobs.”

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