Watchdogs Defend Office of Congressional Ethics

OCE door photoOn Wednesday, I took part in a press conference with leaders of other ethics groups to show support for the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which should not be confused with the House Ethics Committee.

OCE was established in 2008 and is slightly more independent that the Ethics Committee because its board is comprised of former members of Congress and private citizens, rather than sitting members. OCE cannot sanction members but can only make referrals to the Ethics Committee.

Its role and importance were demonstrated in the Charles Rangel case.  NLPC President Peter Flaherty tagged along on a Caribbean junket in November 2008 to sunny St. Maarten. He snapped photos and made audio recordings evidencing that the event was underwritten by big corporations like Citigroup, in violation of House Rules.  OCE took up the case, produced a detailed report based on Flaherty’s materials, and referred it to the Ethics Committee for action.  The Ethics Committee “admonished” Rangel who was forced to resign his Ways and Means Chairmanship in the ensuing media swirl.

The Caribbean junket, however, also underscored the limits of Congressional ethics enforcement, and why even stronger enforcement mechanisms are necessary. The Ethics Committee cleared the other five members of Congress who were also on the trip. They were the late Donald Payne (D-NJ), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-MI), Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Donna Christensen (D-VI).

Of course, the Ethics Committee would have cleared Rangel if not for the initial media coverage of the trip generated by NLPC, and the subsequent media coverage of OCE’s report. One virtue of OCE is its ability to make public its investigative product, putting the House Ethics Committee on the spot.

The organizer of the trip, a New York newspaper publisher named Karl Rodney, pled guilty in April 2011 to lying to Congress about the corporate support during the Ethics investigation.

I made the point at the press conference that there are members in both parties who wish to get rid of OCE.  From The Hill:

Ken Boehm, the head of the National Legal and Policy Center, warned that the OCE’s expiration date is coming soon – “at the end of this session, a matter of days.”

“There are strong bipartisan vibes against [the OCE] by members of Congress,” Boehm said at a press conference. “But the public is overwhelmingly critical of Congress’s ability to police itself, and we can’t imagine the public would in any way support the pulling of the plug.”

The other groups are Public Citizen, Judicial Watch, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, the Sunlight Foundation and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.