Congressional Black Caucus Asks Congress to Restrict Power of Ethics Board
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have asked the House to curtail the power of a congressional ethics board, after multiple members of the caucus have come under investigation by the board over the past year.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH) introduced legislation at the end of May, which was co-sponsored by 19 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The bill would restrict the Office of Congressional Ethics -- which is a bipartisan board staffed solely with private citizens -- from releasing the results of its investigations in cases that the House Ethics Committee decides have no merit. The OCE would also be barred from initiating investigations of its own, and would instead have to wait for a complaint to be filed by a citizen with intimate knowledge of the alleged malfeasance.
According the June 2 Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Last year, the Office of Congressional Ethics found that Fudge's chief of staff, Dawn Kelly Mobley, "improperly influenced" information that a group called Carib News Foundation provided to the House Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee was trying to decide whether a yearly Caribbean trip the group sponsored for Congressional Black Caucus members violated a newly implemented ban on corporate-funded travel.
Its report found that Mobley gave "internal committee communications" to Carib News Foundation that helped it mislead the committee about the trip's corporate sponsorships. Mobley's actions occurred in 2007, while she was an ethics committee counsel to former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Cleveland, who then chaired the Ethics Committee and went on the trip. The report indicated Mobley acted at Tubbs Jones' direction. Tubbs Jones died in 2008, before the improprieties came to light.
The House Ethics Committee, also known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is comprised of congressional members. It has the power to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses, make official rulings and recommend penalties for lawmakers deemed guilty of ethical violations.
In comparison, the OCE only has the power to conduct investigations and refer cases to other boards or agencies for further examination.
The OCE has investigated at least eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and referred four cases to the House Ethics Committee, which dismissed all of them except one. That was the case of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who was admonished by the committee for accepting corporate-funded junkets. OCE acted on news reports resulting from NLPC's expose of a 2008 St. Maarten trip funded by Citigroup and other large corporations.
The Congressional Black Caucus says that transparent OCE investigations have unjustly damaged the reputation of lawmakers, and that new rules will make the process fairer.
"This proposal brings Congress in line with America's judicial system by creating a process truly free of politics, avoiding trials in the court of public opinion, and stopping the premature release of reports," said Fudge in a statement released last week.
Other ethics watchdogs are also concerned that the legislation could allow congressional members to escape prosecution for ethical violations.
"The main elements of her proposal are that only people with direct knowledge could file complaints, so that would mean groups like [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] couldn't file complaints [and] they would be prohibited from initiating investigations without complaints," Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group CREW told Talking Points Memo.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for Rep. Fudge's office sent the NLPC an email clarifying the congresswoman's opinion on the OCE legislation. The NLPC stands by the original reporting in the above article. However, this email may give readers a broader understanding of Rep. Fudge's stance on the issue:
I'm writing regarding a blog posted by Alana Goodm[a]n 6/9/2010 regarding legislation to reform the Office of Congressional Ethics sponsored by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge.
As communications director to the Congresswoman, I would like to point out two mis-statements of fact. The opening paragraph refers to who can file a complaint as a citizen "with intimate knowledge of the alleged malfeasance." The language of the bill reads "asserting personal knowledge of any alleged violation." It does not characterize it as initimate or to any other higher standard".
Another paragraph states, "The Congressional Black Caucus says transparent OCE investigtaions have unjustly damaged the reputation of lawmakers, and that new rules will make the process fairer." Several important words are left out which would properly put this in context. Transparency is not the problem. Also, I'm not aware the CBC issued comments, they should be attributed to Rep. Fudge.
Reworded, you get to the Congresswoman's true intent
"Rep. Fudge says OCE investigtaions which find no credible allegations of misconduct have unjustly damaged the reputation of lawmakers, and that new rules will make the process fairer."
Congresswoman Fudge has never waivered from a belief all members of Congress should be held to the highest ethical standards.
Office of Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (OH-11)
Alana Goodman is NLPC's Capitol Hill Reporter