Remember Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif.? Cunningham plead guilty to tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud in federal court in San Diego. Among the many bribes Cunningham admitted receiving were the sale of his house sale at an inflated price, the free use of the yacht, a used Rolls-Royce, antique furniture, Persian rugs, jewelry, and a $2,000 contribution for his daughter’s college graduation party. Cunningham’s attorney later said that the government’s evidence was so overwhelming that he had no choice but to recommend a guilty plea. With the plea bargain, Cunningham faced a maximum of 10 years; had he fought the charges, Cunningham risked spending the rest of his life in prison. What did the House Ethics Committee do about their colleague? Nothing.
Remember Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio? “Freedom fries” Ney? Ney who was charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. In the face of overwhelming evidence, he plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and making false statements in relation to the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal. Before he plead, Ney was identified in the guilty pleas of Jack Abramoff, former Tom DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy, former DeLay press secretary Michael Scanlon and former Ney chief of staff Neil Volz for receiving lavish gifts in exchange for political favors. What did the House Ethics Committee do about Ney? Nothing.
Do you remember Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.? Jefferson was videotaped by the FBI receiving $100,000 worth of $100 bills in a leather briefcase at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Jefferson told an investor, Lori Mody, who was wearing a wire, that he would need to give Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar $500,000 “as a motivating factor” to make sure they obtained contracts for iGate and Mody’s company in Nigeria. A few days later,FBI agents raided Jefferson’s home in Northeast Washington and, as noted in an 83-page affidavit filed to support a subsequent raid on his Congressional office, “found $90,000 of the cash in the freezer.” Cold cash, indeed. What did the House Ethics Committee do about Jefferson? Nothing.
It was cases like these – and public outrage in response to these crimes – that caused Congress to create the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is run by a six-member outside board. The OCE does not have subpoena power. But it has its own staff of investigators who, in response to complaints, conduct confidential interviews and collect documents. The OCE then issues findings that detail any possible violation of federal rules or laws. The OCE then votes on whether to refer the matter to the full House Ethics Committee, which conducts its own review. But here’s the key bit: the House Ethics Committee, even if it dismisses the potential ethics violation as unfounded, is required to release the Office of Congressional Ethics report detailing the alleged wrongdoing. That’s a powerful deterrent to ethical hanky-panky by lawmakers.
The OCE is unpopular with Congresspersons. Tough. Congresspersons are unhappy that the OCE acts on anonymous complaints. Tough. The Executive and Judicial branches live with an even more rigorous process, imposed on those branches by, yes, that’s right, Congress.
At a secret meeting Monday night, the Republican majority of the U.S. House, not yet even sworn in to office, by secret ballot, voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. It’s outrageous enough that even the president-elect, a stranger to ethics himself, felt moved to criticize the House Republicans’ actions.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was created for very good reasons, in response to shocking and outrageous corruption, mostly by Republicans. (Corruption is practically the norm in Louisiana, where Rep. Jefferson was elected.) It’s extremely disturbing that the very first action by the new Congress, taken before they are even sworn in to office, was to do away with protections against corruption. No more anonymous complaints. And a Republican-controlled committee to quietly sweep under the rug any complaints that might make it through. What could possibly go wrong?
It is, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D, California) said, a very strange way to approach draining the swamp.
WC doesn’t often urge action by his readers, but you need to contact your U.S. House representative about this and tell him not to be o egregiously stupid. And you need to act now.