The Office of Congressional Ethics voted unanimously last week to ask the U.S. Justice Department to review documents in the PMA Group pay-to-play scheme.
The OCE, a bipartisan board created by congress and composed of private citizens, released a statement of May 27 saying that it would send the Justice Department “evidence [that] pertains to a factual finding by the OCE Board that certain persons and companies saw their campaign donations as affecting decisions about earmarks.”
The office has conducted seven investigations of the PMA Group, which is the lobbying firm at the center of an alleged scheme in which lawmakers may have traded earmarks for campaign cash. The OCE’s investigations cleared five of the seven lawmakers implicated, but the office recommended more in-depth examinations of Rep. Pete Vicslosky (D-IN) and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS).
House members linked to the scheme who were cleared by the OCE include the late Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Rep. Bill Young (R-FL).
While the OCE can conduct investigations, it does not have the authority to recommend sanctions on lawmakers. The office only has the power to request further examinations from other agencies.
The House Ethics Committee, which does have the ability to recommend whether action should be taken against lawmakers found guilty in an investigation, conducted a probe of the now-defunct PMA Group last February. The committee issued a brief, 5-page report which cleared seven members of congress in the case. However, the committee has declined to disclose details of the investigation.
Documents reviewed by the OCE reportedly showed contractors candidly discussing exchanging cash for no-bid contracts. In one email exchange, a contractor told his boss that he didn’t want to go to a PMA wine-tasting fundraiser for Rep. Moran because he didn’t drinks.
“You don’t have to drink. You just have to pay,” responded his boss over email, according to The Washington Post.
The OCE’s decision to refer the case to the Justice Department comes after Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH) requested that the office release the evidence it had collected during its PMA investigations. The congressmen’s appeal was rejected by the OCE, which said that “under the circumstances of this case and the risk of prejudice to any pending criminal investigation, among other concerns, the Board was unable to grant their request.”
Rep. Flake has been at the forefront of a campaign to force the House Ethics Committee to release the evidence that led them to clear all seven of the lawmakers tied to the PMA case. The congressman has also urged the committee to provide lawmakers with clearer guidance regarding earmarks and campaign contributions.
“This cries out for clearer guidance from the House Ethics Committee regarding the appropriateness of awarding earmarks to campaign contributors,” Rep. Flake’s spokesman Matthew Specht told the NLPC. “[Y]et the Ethics Committee seems content to let Members of Congress navigate these muddy waters on their own.”
Alana Goodman is NLPC’s Capitol Hill Reporter