A Breach of Ethics

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KleptoCast 5: Casey Michel talks to Meredith McGehee, Strategic Advisor at the Campaign Legal Center, about how the Office of Congressional Ethics has helped protect American democracy against corruption–both foreign and domestic.

 

By Casey Michel

While much of Washington, over the past few years, has been mired in an increasing ethical morass – from growing gerrymandering to expanding offshore services – there has been one office that has risen as something of a success story in strengthening ethics oversight in Congress. The Office of Congressional Ethics, founded in 2008 as an outgrowth of the reforms following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, has managed to earn a reputation in Washington for its investigational doggedness, taking Congressional officials to task for numerous ethical breaches. While the OCE, overseen by a six-member outside board, continues to lack subpoena power, it has produced some of the most thorough – and enlightening – reports on ethics scandals in Washington to date.

Indeed, the OCE’s myriad successes in unearthing ethical slips among members of the House of Representatives may have been one of the reasons House Republicans recently targeted the independent body for dismantlement. Earlier this week, as Republicans look to assume control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, House GOP members – without any advance notice, and without any debate – moved to effectively dissolve the OCE. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the push to gut the OCE came from Congressional officials who’d been under OCE investigation prior. Moreover, as Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis noted, the vote to push the proposed rules shift forward took place in a “closed door GOP conference.” As DeBonis added, “[W]e won’t know who voted to gut House ethics office unless individual members say so.” (As of Wednesday, only 19 House GOP members had admitted they had supported such move.)

The House GOP’s planned movesthe timing of which, it’s worth noting, was opposed by both House leadership and President-elect Donald Trump – would have all but neutered the OCE moving forward. To wit, not only would the proposed rules, which were rolled back on Tuesday, have prohibited the OCE from investigating any allegations of abuse prior to January 3, 2011, but they would have subsumed the OCE wholesale into the House Ethics Committee – effectively negating any of the independence the OCE has managed to carve for itself since its inception nearly a decade ago. Likewise, anonymous whistleblowers would no longer have been able to contact the OCE with complaints or tips, nor would the OCE have been able to maintain any communications with the public. For good measure, the proposed rule would have changed the office’s name entirely, shifting it to an “Office of Congressional Complaint Review.” As one ethics watchdog spokesperson told Washington Post, “The fact that they do not want an office with ‘Congressional Ethics’ in the name is a pretty good metaphor for how ethics scandals will be dealt with if this rule passes.”

Public Interest and Muzzled Investigations

Perhaps the most disquieting proposed shift, however, stemmed from the House GOP’s proposal to allow the House Ethics Committee to stall any ongoing OCE investigation whenever the Ethics Committee so chose. As such, not only would the OCE have been prohibited from sharing any of its findings directly with the public, but, should the office manage to uncover any ethical transgressions in its research, the House Ethics Committee would have been under no obligation to publicize such findings – nor pursue such investigations any further.

The proposal, it goes without saying, presented a potentially massive regression in Washington’s attempts to curtail ethics and lobbying abuse in the post-Abramoff era. However, such proposals should not, on their face, be altogether surprising. Over the past few years a notable schism has erupted between the OCE and the Ethics Committee – arising, in no small part, due to the OCE’s investigations into foreign funding abuse by those pushing Azerbaijan’s interests in Washington.

In 2013, a substantial Congressional junket, including nine members of Congress and dozens of staffers, traveled to Azerbaijan, feted by organizers and local Azeri officials alike. Between sumptuous dinners, crystal tea sets, lavish rugs, and DVDs on the merits of Azerbaijan’s dictator, the Congressional conclave was, as one journalist present noted, “among the biggest concentrations of American political star power ever seen in the Caucasus.”

It was also, as the OCE later uncovered, one of the most substantial abuses of regulations surrounding funding for foreign Congressional travel that Washington has seen in years. As the OCE later found, the government of Azerbaijan, via its state-run energy firm, had transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Texas-based non-profit, which, in turn, passed the funds to a secondary constellation of non-profits – who could then claim they were funding the Congressional travel to Azerbaijan. These secondary non-profits – glorified middle-men, in effect – provided nominal cover for the funding: A Congressional loophole allows non-profits to finance putative fact-finding missions for American officials. However, heads of these Baku-funded non-profits later lied to the Ethics Committee when declaring their funding statements. One head, when questioned about the mis-truths, sputtered, “I mean, to be honest, it seems … like so, yes. I mean, we didn’t accept it maybe, but yes we did. What can I say?”

Go Your Own Way

The findings were, and remain, spectacular, both for the number of Congressional officials involved and the brazenness of those pushing Azeri interests. (No Congressional officials were ever found to have misled the Ethics Committee; per the OCE, all officials acted in “good faith reliance on information received.”) However, the only reason the public was made aware of such findings was because of the OCE. As the OCE’s investigations pushed forward, the Ethics Committee unexpectedly requested that investigators end their inquiries, citing a “cease and refer” mechanism that would have placed the investigation solely under the oversight of the Ethics Committee. As a letter from a series of ethics watchdogs noted, the Ethics Committee’s move was “unprecedented,” and would have “established[ed] a dangerous precedent” that would have allowed the Ethics Committee to squelch any OCE investigation “at any time.” (Given that one member of the Ethics Committee attended the Azeri junket and failed to follow proper committee rule on travel approval, the Ethics Committee’s move was perhaps unsurprising.) The OCE, however, refused the Ethics Committee’s request, pointing to existing Congressional rules – and, citing “principles of transparency and accountability,” released the 76-page report for the public on the OCE’s website.

In the time since, there has been little indication that relations between the OCE and the Ethics Committee have mended. Now, given the House GOP’s willingness to hobble the OCE – and its desire to do so behind closed doors – it’s clear that certain actors in Congress would rather an independent OCE not have the chance to continue proving its investigatory bona fides for both Congress and the public at large. As one Congressional ethics expert said last year, “If you’re looking for a success story on ethics, the OCE is that success story.” If the House GOP has its way moving forward, though, that success story may well be a thing of the past.

Casey Michel has worked as a journalist and researcher in both the U.S. and former Soviet Union.