The independent Office of Congressional Ethics targeted Republicans in nearly 60% of the cases it opened over the decades, a review of the data shows, and the office targeted more Republican lawmakers even when Democrats were the majority party in Congress.
Democrats might explain the difference by pointing the finger at excessive Republican misbehavior, but Republicans suspect the OCE has morphed from a nonpartisan entity into a repository for attacks against House Republicans by outside liberal-leaning watchdog groups such as Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Democracy 21.
House Republicans, seeking to reinforce the traditional nonpartisan functioning of the board, voted to implement small but critical changes in how the OCE and the House internal investigatory panel, the Ethics Committee, operate in the 118th Congress.
Republicans also voted to make one major change. For the first time, outside groups and individuals will be able to file ethics complaints against lawmakers directly to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of five Republican and five Democratic lawmakers and has the authority to punish members for wrongdoing.
Top House Democrats said the changes would “gut the office of congressional ethics.” Nonpartisan ethics watchdog groups warned that a new rule reimposing term limits for board members could make it harder for the OCE to conduct timely investigations because three longtime Democratic board members will have to step down.
“The concern is that by immediately just saying three people can no longer sit on the board, it stymies possible investigations,” Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel for ethics at the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, told The Washington Times. “It’s really going to be dependent on how quickly those seats can be filled.”
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Allowing the House Ethics Committee to accept outside complaints, she said, could reimpose a system of self-policing that left the panel nearly dormant two decades ago.
“From our perspective,” Ms. Marsco said, “we know that the OCE is an independent investigatory body.”
The House voted to create the OCE in 2008, in part to provide an avenue for outside groups to file ethics complaints against House lawmakers. The move followed a string of high-profile corruption cases and years of inactivity by the House Ethics Committee.
The OCE examines complaints from outside groups and decides whether to refer them to the House Ethics Committee, which metes out punishment for lawmakers ranging from letters of reprimand to rare expulsion recommendations.
The OCE staff and board declined to comment on the record for this article, but sources familiar with the functioning of the panel insisted that it has always operated in a strictly nonpartisan manner. Although the board has yielded more Republican referrals than Democratic referrals over the past 10 years, according to the data, referrals dating back to the board’s creation in 2009 show that the investigations overall targeted lawmakers in the two parties nearly evenly.
House Republicans defended the changes to the OCE rules by noting that they were “cut and pasted” from the original charter when the office was created nearly 15 years ago. They were added back, Republicans told The Times, to restore basic accountability and good governance.
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“House Republicans voted in favor of a rules package that includes accountability measures that update the Office of Congressional Ethics — using direct language from Democrats’ charter of the office — and to allow citizens to submit claims to the Ethics Committee in order to provide greater transparency and accountability to the people’s House,” said Mark Bednar, a spokesman for Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The House rules reinstate eight-year term limits for the eight board members, four appointed by Democrats and four by Republicans. Democrats dropped term limits for the OCE board, and some of their appointees have been on the panel for a dozen years or longer, Republican aides said.
Republicans also revived a requirement for the board to hire staff at the beginning of each Congress, which is on par with the hiring rules for House lawmakers and other government entities, including the Federal Election Commission.
Republicans want the bipartisan board to have an opportunity to pick new staff at the start of each Congress, partly out of concern that the board members are no longer involved in hiring employees and ensuring a partisan slant is not creeping into the office.
Republicans have been reviewing the OCE cases referred to House Ethics Committee for investigation, and the data shows that Republican lawmakers in recent years have been targeted more often, particularly when they are in the majority. When Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House, they control legislation and committees, making them bigger targets of ethics inquiries.
During the Republicans’ most recent time in the majority, from 2011 until 2019, they received 10 more OCE referrals than Democrats.
When Democrats were in the majority from 2019 until this year, the OCE sent one fewer referral for Democratic lawmakers than Republican lawmakers to the House Ethics Committee.
Americans for Public Trust, a nonpartisan watchdog group that has filed numerous complaints against Democratic lawmakers, said the OCE rejected all of its complaints, even those targeting Republicans.
“Not a single complaint we have ever filed has been referred to House Ethics, despite filing very compelling and credible ethics complaints,” said the group’s executive director, Caitlin Sutherland.
House Republicans are concerned that the staff is running the OCE and that board members are losing control. They point out that the OCE’s senior counsel, Bill Cable, once served as chief of staff to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
The OCE’s director of operations, Caleb Moore, worked most recently for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat. He also worked for Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and David Perdue of Georgia, both Republicans.
No other member of the current OCE staff has worked for a congressional lawmaker.
A rule approved by House Republicans would require the board to review every staff hire, including Omar Ashmawy, the staff director and chief counsel who has worked for the OCE since it opened in 2009.
Mr. Ashmawy was put on paid leave in September after he was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and crashing his car into a home in Pennsylvania.
He completed an alcohol treatment program and returned to work in December, but Republican lawmakers said the board should look at his overall record and revisit his employment.
Mr. Ashmawy was involved in a bar fight in Pennsylvania in 2015. Real Clear Politics said House investigators found that he used his congressional email to try to “improperly exert pressure” on the local police to charge his opponents in the bar fight. He was never disciplined for the behavior.
The OCE declined to comment on the record about any issues at the office.
“When you have the head of an ethics office being charged with crimes, and he is the one who is supposed to be referring potential problems, I think a review of the office, a shake-up, is deserved,” Ms. Sutherland said.