By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times
WASHINGTON—U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane, on Thursday disclosed she’s the target of a possible ethics investigation stemming from her successful run for the No. 4 House GOP leadership post.
The disclosure came ahead of a deadline for the House Ethics Committee to decide whether to dismiss or pursue an ethics complaint filed last year with the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, by a former staff member.
The ethics committee, which unlike the OCE has investigative powers, announced Thursday it would seek a 45-day extension, which is not uncommon.
McMorris Rodgers’ staff said the allegations are baseless.
The Spokane lawmaker is considered a rising star in the House GOP and just last week delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.
The allegations involved “commingling” campaign funds and other resources in the run up to her election as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference in 2012, McMorris Rodgers aides said.
House rules permit lawmakers running for party-leadership positions to tap either their campaign treasuries—raised from political donors—or official funds provided by taxpayers to perform their jobs. But members must use one or the other, and not mix the funds or other resources.
Posters and mailings for a leadership election, for instance, can be paid with campaign money. But then it can’t involve the lawmaker’s office staff.
The complaint to the OCE is confidential and details of the allegations have not been made public. But a person close to the inquiry said it came from Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former spokesman. Winer was passed over for a job as communications director in McMorris Rodgers’ new leadership office, and was dismissed from her personal office in January 2013.
Winer, now spokesman for Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, did not respond to a phone call and e-mail message seeking comment.
Nate Hodson, communications director for the House Republican Conference, said McMorris Rodgers is “confident that every activity was compliant with all federal laws, House rules and standards of conduct. We are fully cooperating and look forward to seeing this matter dismissed.”
Hodson and Elliot Berke, McMorris Rodgers’ outside attorney, did not respond when asked whether Winer’s allegations go beyond issues of commingling campaign and official resources.
Hodson and Berke, who is with McGuireWoods, an international law firm based in Richmond, VA, both downplayed the significance of OCE’s decision in December to refer the matter to the ethics panel, and the ethics committee’s decision to defer until March 23 whether to initiate a full investigation.
The OCE is an independent ethics watchdog that functions as an internal-affairs office for the House. It serves as a fact-finding body to determine whether an official investigation is warranted. That referral is made after the OCE’s eight-member board completes a three-step process for determining whether there is a “reasonable,” then “probable” and finally “substantial” merit to the allegations.
Since January 2012, the OCE has referred at least 15 lawmakers to the Ethics Committee for possible investigation.
They included allegations of campaign-finance-rules violations by Reps. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, and Aaron Schock, of Illinois, as well as a sexual-harassment complaint against Rep. Alcee Hastings, of Florida.
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