If your chief of staff had been admonished by House Ethics investigators, would you think twice about sponsoring legislation to limit the reach of the Office of Congressional Ethics?
You might if you were Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH). Last year, following on an OCE investigation, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct admonished Fudge’s Chief of Staff Dawn Kelly Mobley for actions she undertook when she had a different boss—Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH), who died in 2008. Now Fudge, along with nearly 20 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are seeking to rewrite the rules that govern the OCE, to prevent the panel and other congressional investigators from releasing reports or making public statements about unresolved cases.
But according to Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the proposal is much farther reaching than that and she says Fudge and her supporters are trying to shield themselves and other members of Congress from oversight.
“The main elements of her proposal are that only people with direct knowledge could file complaints, so that would mean groups like CREW couldn’t file complaints [and] they would be prohibited from initiating investigations without complaints.” Sloan tells me, adding that the point of OCE was to provide outside groups a venue for filing complaints, since the House Ethics Committee does not allow that.
Mobley came under scrutiny for facilitating one of two ethically inappropriate junkets for members of the CBC including Tubbs Jones, and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), who ultimately lost his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee as a result of his participation.
The illicit junkets, which occurred in 2007 and 2008, were sponsored by the New York non-profit Carib News Foundation, which had bankrolled an annual trip for CBC members for years. But those trips had to be re-evaluated when the House implemented new ethics rules—including a ban on corporate-funded travel—after Democrats retook control of Congress.
Mobley was reprimanded for coaching Carib News officials in 2007 to mask potential ethics violations to members of the OCE. The trips were ultimately found to be inappropriate, and Mobley officially admonished, in 2009.
Fudge’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though a spokeswoman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Fudge began working on the legislation before she knew the ethics office was targeting Mobley, whom she continues to defend.
“If an investigative file is released early, the person is tried in the media,” Fudge spokeswoman Belinda Prinz said. “An unfounded frivolous complaint can cause irreversible damage to a person’s reputation.”
It’s still unclear whether Fudge’s proposal would have shielded Mobley from investigation if the restrictions had been in effect in 2007. The OCE launched its investigation of the junket based on a complaint filed by the Law and Policy Center, which had first hand knowledge of the improprieties. Fudge’s proposal, according to Sloan, might still allow outside groups to file complaints under those circumstances.
As far as the prospects for this legislation in Congress, there may in fact be an appetite for addressing the conundrum Fudge’s spokesperson raised, but there have been no high-level discussions about how to address it, or whether Fudge’s solution is the appropriate one.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.