Five House Members Will Leave Congress With Open Ethics Review
By Hannah Hess, CQ Roll Call (MCT)
WASHINGTON — One often-repeated sound bite of state Sen. Lee Zeldin’s successful campaign to unseat Rep. Timothy H. Bishop in New York’s 1st District was, “Just call me the … mailman” — a line that came straight from the pages of an Office of Congressional Ethics report on the Democrat.
Republicans said Bishop was bragging in the email, included in an OCE report that revealed the congressman helped a constituent get government clearance for a bar mitzvah fireworks display. According to the OCE, Bishop then asked for “5 large” in campaign contributions.
The House Ethics Committee has not launched a formal investigation into the matter, but it appears the allegations still helped sink Bishop’s bid for a seventh term.
In accordance with rules requiring disclosure,the Ethics Committee publicly released the OCE’s report and findings on Sept. 11, 2013. The panel announced it would continue a fact-finding pursuant to Rule 18A, putting the Bishop probe in limbo with no requirement that any result be made public. One year later, the National Republican Congressional Committee hit the airwaves with a 30-second ad reminding voters that congressional ethics investigators and the FBI had both looked into the incumbent’s actions.
Because the Ethics Committee only investigates sitting members of Congress, Bishop’s election night defeat means the case is effectively closed on Capitol Hill.Four other House lawmakers are in the same boat in the wake of the midterms, set to sail away from Washington with no rebuke from the bipartisan group of lawmakers who sit on the panel charged with policing their own.In some cases, merely sharing the investigation with the public was penalizing enough for the member.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) announced her retirement from Congress on May 29, 2013, amid multiple probes into her 2012 presidential bid. Two days later, the OCE board voted to refer its report on alleged improper campaign spending to the Ethics Committee. It outlined the OCE’s evidence that Bachmann may have used campaign funds to promote her book and may have used funds from her leadership political action committee to supplement the salary of political campaign staff.
Like Bishop’s case, the panel announced a few months after the referral that it would continue to review Bachmann’s possible ethics violations. Republican Tom Emmer has been elected to succeed her.
Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) also leaves office with no rebuke from the House, weeks after an OCE report presenting evidence that suggests he used his position to help certain companies in which he was financially invested. After news reports about an investigation into Petri’s relationship with a defense contractor headquartered in his district, the 17-term lawmaker in February asked the Ethics Committee for a review in an attempt “to end any questions.” The OCE was simultaneously looking into his actions. Petri announced his retirement in April. Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman will fill the seat in next Congress.
House rules are designed to prevent OCE investigations from being used to score political points during an election year. The nonpartisan fact-finding board is barred from transmitting any referrals to the Ethics Committee within 60 days before a federal, state or local election in which the subject of the probe is a candidate. If an ongoing review ends during the suspension period, the board completes its referral and transmits the report on the first business day following the election.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) faced an ethics probe during his final months in Congress for paying GOP communications consultant Brett O’Donnell, the so-called Tea Party whisperer, more than $43,000 in taxpayer dollars. Broun allegedly paid out in exchange for advice on communications during his failed bid for a Senate seat. Those revelations came from an OCE report released on Oct. 29, shortly before Republican Jody Hice won the three-term congressman’s seat.
The case will also be closed on Rep. Steve Stockman, who told the Houston Chronicle he was the target of an ethics probe a few days before the panel went public with the news. According to a scathing report by the OCE, the Texas Republican accepted contributions to his own congressional campaign committee from two employees. Stockman refutes the report as inaccurate and biased, but he will not be around to see the results of the ongoing review of the matter. He took himself out of commission after losing a primary challenge to Texas Sen. John Cornyn, and congratulated Republican Brian Babin on winning his seat.
Stockman escaped rebuke from what appeared to be a violation of House rules in September. He tweeted a photo of Broun from the House floor, breaching a clause on “comportment.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr