GOP Congress delays Hunter ethics report

A sign for the Office of Congressional Ethics hangs on a wall in Washington, DC.

The House Ethics Committee has delayed releasing a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) or taking other action regarding allegations against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-50 District).

Details of the report are unknown, but Hunter has been accused of misappropriating campaign money to pay for personal expenses. Last year, the liberal nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed complaints with the OCE and the Federal Election Commission, after Hunter’s campaign committee acknowledged spending thousands of dollars not related to campaign activity.

A quarterly report released by the OCE Feb. 8 said the Ethics Committee was required to release its referral of the Hunter matter or announce an investigation of Hunter by Jan. 29. However, the Ethics Committee hasn’t yet held an organizational meeting or taken any action in the 115th Congress. Only nine of its required 10 members—five Republicans and four Democrats—have been named by House leaders.

As a result the Ethics Committee hasn’t released the OCE report on Hunter or announced any other action regarding the congressman, according to its website.

OCE Rules Sought Transparency

House rules that created the OCE in 2008 set deadlines for the release of OCE reports in an effort to increase transparency in the frequently criticized congressional ethics process. However, the OCE and the Ethics Committee have sparred in recent years over who has authority to release the reports. The OCE has claimed it can release a report on its own once a deadline has passed, but hasn’t yet done so in the case of the Hunter report.

A statement issued by the Ethics Committee in December said it was extending a review of an OCE referral received Aug. 31 regarding Hunter. The panel had indicated it would make a further announcement about how it would proceed in the matter, after Congress reconvened in January.

Hunter Repaid Campaign $50,000

The new OCE quarterly report didn’t name Hunter but said a matter referred to the Ethics Committee was due for action by Jan. 29. The report said the Ethics Committee “must release the OCE referral or make a public announcement that the Committee has voted to empanel an investigative subcommittee” to pursue the matter further. There have been no announcements from the Ethics Committee about Hunter since December.

Earlier this year, CREW said it filed complaints with the OCE and the FEC after Hunter’s campaign committee acknowledged spending thousands of dollars not related to campaign activity. CREW said reports filed by Hunter’s campaign with the FEC disclosed payments to hotels and restaurants in Rome, Florence and Positano on what appeared to be a family vacation to Italy.

Hunter’s campaign committee recently told the FEC Hunter had paid the committee nearly $50,000 from his personal funds after “an independent financial review of all expenditures for the 2015-2016 cycle … identified unauthorized expenditures that have been deemed personal in nature.”

OCE Embattled

The OCE is an independent watchdog office created in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. It screens ethics cases and refers serious matters to the Ethics Committee. The office has a staff of professional investigators overseen by a board composed of ex-lawmakers and other ethics experts.

In addition to listing pending ethics matters, the new OCE quarterly report summarized actions taken by the ethics office on 172 investigations it has conducted since the office began operating in 2009. The report said 40 percent of these matters were referred to the Ethics Committee for further review while 60 percent were terminated or dismissed.

Reports on OCE investigations can be politically damaging even if the Ethics Committee doesn’t take further action on a matter, and some lawmakers, including some targeted by the ethics office, have tried to limit the office. Resistance to the OCE culminated in early January in an effort by House Republicans to weaken the office’s enforcement powers, but the move was largely abandoned after a barrage of public criticism, including President Donald Trump chiming in via Twitter.

Hastings Named to OCE Board

The proposal to weaken the independent watchdog office was stripped from a broader package of House rule changes just before the House voted Jan. 3 on rules for the new 115th Congress.

The final rules package included lesser changes in OCE operations, extending the terms of current members of the office’s bipartisan board of directors and removing a requirement that Democrats and Republicans concur on new appointments to the OCE board.

Following the rules changes, former Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) was appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to a slot on the OCE board vacated more than a year ago by former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.). Hastings, who left Congress in 2015, formerly chaired the House Ethics Committee during turbulent periods in the 2000s, when the panel dealt with ethics controversies related to fundraising by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and a scandal regarding former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) harassment of House pages.

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