JW Calls on Congress to Get Back to Work on Ethics

JW Calls on Congress to Get Back to Work on Ethics

Last Wednesday, Judicial Watch’s Director of Investigations and Research, Chris Farrell, joined with representatives of other watchdog organizations at a press conference to deliver a very simple message to House Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: Act now to keep the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) running without interruption.

Roll Call covered the story:

Time is dwindling for House leaders to find and appoint candidates to fill at least four impending openings on the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics before year’s end so its investigative work can continue uninterrupted.

The vacancies, combined with House Republicans’ delay appointing a House Ethics Committee chairman for the next Congress after the heads of other panels were announced, has government-accountability groups worried that ethics issues may be marginalized.

(In addition to Judicial Watch, the groups included: Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, National Legal and Policy Center, Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation and U.S. PIRG.)

Despite assurances from both members of Congress that they remain committed to the OCE, time is running out to do what is necessary to protect it.  As I told Roll Call, “Practically speaking, [the Republican House leadership] is late. There are a lot of things on their plate, but it’s not like it’s a surprise that these appointments are required.”

As Judicial Watch and the other good government groups noted in a letter to Boehner and Pelosi, dated December 12, 2012, there are very specific steps that must now be taken:

The terms of four members of OCE’s board will expire at the end of this year, leaving just the two chairmen – Porter Goss and David Skaggs – as sitting board members. OCE cannot function without an active board of directors…. It is the responsibility of solely your two offices to agree upon and appoint board members for the expired terms in the 113th Congress ….

As you may recall, Judicial Watch played a key role in the creation of the OCE. I testified before Congress on the issue of House ethics reform and we worked with then-Speaker Pelosi to establish the system now in place. It hasn’t functioned perfectly, but as we noted in the December 12th letter, the OCE “provides a critical yet non-intrusive link between the public and the important work of the House Ethics Committee.”

The OCE doesn’t make judgments on ethics cases. (That’s the job of the House Ethics Committee.) It merely serves as an independent fact-finding body that reviews allegations of improper conduct made against Members of Congress and congressional staff. “…In the course of its investigative reports, the agency [offers] useful evidence and insights and helps the public better understand the nature of specific cases,” the letter stated.

(For an in-depth review of how the OCE operates, visit the official OCE website.)

Among the members of Congress investigated by the OCE: Reps. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Vern Buchanan (R-FL), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Laura Richardson (D-CA), Don Young (R-AK), and former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL).

Owing both to its mission and the bi-partisan manner in which the OCE has approached its work, the OCE has been on shaky ground from the beginning. It passed Congress in 2008 by a narrow margin. House Democrats were unhappy with some of the supposedly “tough” sanctions that resulted from the OCE’s work in its early days. The Congressional Black Caucus also took offense to the attention given to its membership by the OCE. And Republican leaders didn’t like the idea from the get-go. (There was even talk at the beginning of the 112th Congress of weakening the OCE or doing away with it altogether.)

Thus far, it has survived these attacks, but at the writing of this update, the OCE’s future is somewhat in doubt. As we note in our letter, if the OCE is allowed to go defunct, enforcement of congressional ethics will be at “dire risk.”

Clearly, the demise of the OCE would not go over well with the American people.

According to a Judicial Watch/Breitbart News Election Day 2012 poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, corruption in the federal government was cited as a serious concern among voters, with 85% saying they are “concerned” and 53% saying they are “very concerned.” And members of Congress wonder why they have a 20% approval rating.

Suffice to say, House Speaker Boehner and Speaker Pelosi would be wise to make the OCE, and ethics in general, a priority in the 113th Congress. Rest assured Judicial Watch will be ever present in reminding them of this obligation to combat corruption among the ranks of Congress.