On Monday night, on a federal holiday, behind closed doors, House Republicans voted to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) — the independent body tasked with rooting out corruption and conflicts of interest on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, after a public outcry, they abandoned the plan, though some Congress members suggested they may try again at a later date to gut the ethics panel.
Since the office was created in 2008, it investigated dozens of cases each year, uncovering damning information on Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. The following cases, which range from insider trading to accepting gifts from foreign governments, reveal the kind of behavior that may now go unchecked without the government watchdog in action.
- Steering information and favors to a lobbyist’s wife. In July of this year, the OCE reported that Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) allowed his wife, Constance Harriman, to lobby his own staff on behalf of the Humane Society between 2011 and 2015, “dispensed special favors” to her, and helped her set up as many as 100 meetings with other members of Congress. Whitfield also introduced bills supported by the pharmaceutical technology company LaserLock while his wife served on their board and while the couple held stock in the company. The OCE uncovered e-mails showing Harriman using her husband’s congressional office to gather information that would benefit LaserLock. Whitfield announced his resignation shortly after the report’s release.
- Boosting a junk vehicle inspection side business. In 2010, the OCE found that Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) violated House ethics rules by meeting with Georgia officials about making changes to the state’s vehicle inspection program while co-owning a business that conducted the inspections. “Deal sought to preserve a state vehicle inspection program that had generated significant personal financial benefit for him,” the report found. Deal resigned following the probe.
- Using a public office to benefit a personal hedge fund. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) may have violated half a dozen House ethics rules by continuing to operate a hedge fund and multiple law firms while serving in Congress, the OCE concluded in 2015. The report found Grayson may also have omitted nearly $1 million in outside income from his financial disclosure statements, directed his congressional staff to do work for his hedge fund, used government resources for his reelection campaign, and indirectly profited from a military jet fuel company that held government contracts. Grayson lost his primary bid for a Senate seat this summer.
- A luxury trip and gifts on Azerbaijan’s dime. In 2015, 10 members of Congress from both parties and 32 of their staff members attended a conference on the Caspian Sea paid for by Azerbaijan’s state-run oil company. There, they were showered with gifts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenses, turquoise earrings, silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs worth up to $10,000 dollars. The oil company funneled the money through U.S.-based non-profits to conceal it from ethics watchdogs, and several members of Congress refused to cooperate with the ensuing investigation. At the time of the gifts, Azerbaijan was seeking an exemption from U.S. sanctions against Iran so it could build a massive natural gas pipeline. Five days after the conference, President Obama signed an executive order that included the exemption.
- Continuing to pay a staff member who was fired for harassing women. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) fired his chief of staff Kenny West in April of 2015, after female staffers complained he was sexually harassing them. Yet the OCE found that Meadows continued to pay West more than $12,000 a month until August of that year. A year later, the office decided to continue investigating the allegations. They interviewed women in Meadow’s office who said West looked down their shirts, touched them without consent, and made inappropriate comments about their “love lives.”
- Ethical violations and financial malfeasance from Harlem to the Caribbean. In 2010, the OCE dug up a mound of dirt on veteran Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), including evidence that that Rangel “improperly used his congressional staff and official letterhead to raise seven-figure donations from corporate charities and chief executives for a college wing named in his honor; violated New York City rules by housing his political committees in his rent-controlled apartments in Harlem; did not pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic; and did not properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets.” A few months earlier, the office found that Rangel had taken corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Rangel co-founded, called for the elimination of the ethics office after Rangel was found guilty of 11 different ethical violations. He retired earlier this year.
- Improperly using federal resources for a campaign. In 2014, the OCE investigated rising Republican star Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) for improperly using federal resources to further her political campaign from 2010–2012. While it’s common for House and Senate staffers to help with their boss’s reelection campaigns, to abide by the law, they must do it in off-hours and outside the congressional buildings. McMorris Rodgers, the OCE alleged, broke these rules and used her House staff and federal financial resources for election campaigns (including staff travel), paid a consultant for work in her House office with campaign funds, and mixed the two resources to campaign for a House leadership office. In 2015, Brett O’Donnell, a Republican debate coach, pleaded guilty to lying to the OCE about how much campaign work he did for lawmakers while being paid from their office accounts — including Rep. McMorris Rodgers.
- Trying to buy a Senate seat. The OCE uncovered recordings showing that an “emissary” of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) offered money to former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in exchange for the governor appointing Jackson to fill the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. Jackson also used resources from his D.C. and Chicago House offices to lobby for the nomination, which he did not ultimately get. Blagojevich remains in prison for attempting to sell the seat. Jackson resigned in 2012 after taking a long medical leave of absence.
- Flouting campaign finance rules on a book tour. While mounting a failed bid for the White House in 2012, the OCE found, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) paid the same consultant through her campaign and her PAC, violating rules barring coordination between the entities. She may have used funds from her presidential campaign to promote her book, and used her book tour — paid for by the publisher — to campaign for president. The office said there was “ substantial reason to believe” she violating federal campaign finance laws and House ethics rules. Bachmann retired in 2013, effectively ending the investigation.
- Taking contributions in exchange for a bar mitzvah fireworks permit. In 2013, the OCE found that Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) agreed to assist a constituent in obtaining a permit for setting off fireworks at his son’s bar mitzvah on Long Island. Bishop then requested a donation of $5,000 from the constituent and his wife, and received it shortly after. Bishop lost his bid for reelection in 2014 after his opponent hammered him on the ethics charges in campaign commercials.
- Paying for family trip to Universal Studios with campaign funds. In 2015, Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) and his family took a five-and-a-half day trip to Los Angeles. Stutzman met with supporters over two of the trip’s days, but billed the entire trip — including his family’s airfare and rental vehicle — to his Senate campaign, according to the OCE. While in California, the Stutzman family visited Universal Studios and toured the Reagan Presidential Library and the Reagan Ranch, where they posed for pictures Stutzman’s wife later posted to Facebook. Stutzman, who denies the charges, lost his bid for the Senate in the Republican primary this year. He was facing a probe from the House Ethics Committee, after the OCE’s report, but his retirement took him out of both groups’ jurisdiction.
Laurel Raymond contributed reporting to this piece.