John Boehner’s Speakership was a setback for Congressional ethics. He backslid on a number of important reforms, and helped to return the Ethics Committee to its traditional role of covering up wrongdoing by incumbent members of Congress.
Boehner ally Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the Chairman of the Ethics Committee, is currently orchestrating a whitewash of apparent House rules violations related to a junket by ten House members to Azerbaijan in 2013.
On July 31, the Ethics Committee announced that it had found “no evidence” that the ten broke House rules. It plans “no further action regarding this matter and considers it closed.”
For ethics groups, however, the matter is far from closed. In fact, both liberal and conservative groups, along with reform advocates like Norm Ornstein, are demanding the Committee release a report on the trip compiled by a separate entity, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
According to the OCE report, the junket was sponsored by nonprofit groups, but was actually paid for by SOCAR, the state oil company of Azerbaijan. NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm asserted, “We believe that the report will confirm that the Committee covered up obvious violations of House rules.”
Azerbaijan is a country in a central Asia. It is ruled by strongman Ilham Aliyev, who heads one of the most corrupt governments on earth. It is no mystery what SOCAR wanted from Congress. A partner with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) in the huge Shah Deniz gas field, it successfully sought an exemption from Iran sanctions.
OCE was established seven years ago in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, which included golf trips to Scotland underwritten by special interests. The House also tightened its travel rules. Members may not accept overnight travel from corporations that employ lobbyists.
OCE is somewhat more independent of the House leadership than the Ethics Committee. OCE’s board is comprised of former members of Congress and private citizens. It cannot sanction members but can only make referrals to the Ethics Committee. Despite this limitation, OCE has provided a useful platform to air ethics charges that might otherwise be buried, such as in the case of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) that was exposed by NLPC.
The OCE report was referred to the Ethics Committee, but has not been made public. It was leaked to the Washington Post, which described its contents on May 13. The report alleges ten House members broke House Rules when they took the 2013 trip to a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, courtesy of SOCAR. Also enjoying free trips were 32 staff members.
Some House members offered the defense that they did not know SOCAR underwrote the trip, but the OCE investigators detailed how conference meeting rooms were festooned with banners with SOCAR's logo.
The House members who took the trip were Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and then-Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.). Clarke is a member of the Ethics Committee.
OCE apparently acted in response to a July 2014 story in the Houston Chronicle describing the trip. In addition to SOCAR, BP, ConocoPhillips and KBR also helped to pay the costs of the event, estimated at $1.5 million. Those costs reportedly included $100,000 for hotels, $75,000 for food and entertainment, and $1.2 million for travel and other expenses.
NLPC provided significant background information for the Chronicle story, which described how nonprofit organizations were apparently used as fronts to launder the prohibited corporate funding.
When sponsoring Congressional travel, nonprofit leaders must certify under oath that they have not received money from corporations that lobby Congress.
Unlike House rules violations, lying under oath is criminal. In 2011, Karl Rodney pled guilty to lying to Congress after he falsely certified that a Caribbean junket by Rangel and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus was sponsored by his nonprofit, when in fact it was underwritten by Citigroup and other large corporations. Rodney was indicted based on evidence provided by NLPC to the FBI.
Although the Ethics Committee cleared the junketeers of violations, it made a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding the nonprofits that sponsored the trip. Both OCE and the Ethics Committee alleged that these outside parties lied about their involvement and/or withheld information.
Boehm asserted, “We welcome this criminal referral to the Justice Department, but the Ethics Committee is trying to blame the sponsors for everything. Members of Congress knowingly violated House rules on travel. They should not be let off the hook.”
Suspicions about the Committee’s intent ran high among ethics reformers. The Committee actually tried to wrest control of the investigation from OCE even before its work was completed, for the presumed purpose of killing it. This possibility may have prompted the leak of the report to the Washington Post.
The credibility of the Ethics Committee was further undermined when Dent accepted $8,000 in campaign contributions from individuals linked to the nonprofit groups that served as fronts for the oil companies.
In addition to NLPC, the August 26 letter demanding the public release of the report was signed by the following groups: Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Demand Progress, Democracy 21and Public Citizen. It was signed by the following individuals: Thomas Mann, Norm Ornstein and James Thurber.
Given the reformist bent and energy of many Tea Party-supported Republicans whose election made Boehner’s Speakership possible, its sadly ironic that Boehner preferred the old ways of doing business. No wonder Congress’s approval ratings are so low.
Releasing the Azerbaijan report is a small but necessary first step in putting Congress on the road to real reform.