House ethics: More oversight, less disclosure

The independent office of congressional ethics had concluded that at least one  lawmaker, perhaps more, may have violated the House rules, and they believe an official investigation is warranted.

If it sounds cryptic, that is because Congress wants it that way.

This independent ethics board was established by House lawmakers to provide additional oversight of its members, who in recent years have been caught demanding bribes in hot tubs and stashing ill-gotten cash in frozen vegetable containers.

This new ethics board, made up of non-members,  puts out a quarterly report listing complaints filed against members, but it conceals just about every detail of every case. Lawmakers voted to make it secret, out of fear this new board would be used as a political weapon by those who might launch frivolous complaints against an opponent.

So, when the quarterly report is issued, as it was on Tuesday, it reads like a page out of a statistical manual, rather than what it really is – an accounting of potentially very bad behavior by our elected officials.

For instance, the report reads, “approximately” 72 private citizens have contacted the board in the last quarter (July through September), some with complaints against members, others requesting information. It doesn't reveal the subject of the complaints or potential misdeeds.

The board has also been at work on new and existing cases. According to the report, it has begun one new investigation into the action of a House member and has commenced a “Phase II”   investigation of eight existing cases that require additional and closer inspection.

Another 10 ethics cases are still in Phase II but need more time, so the board is extending the normally 45-day review time by an additional 14 days.

Finally, the board moved to refer four cases to the House ethics committee, which is made up of lawmakers and is empowered to investigate and punish members for wrongdoing, though it rarely uses its teeth.

Sending a case to the ethics committee is the most serious move the independent panel can make, since it has no authority to mete out punishment. The panel has relayed nine cases to the House ethics panel so far.

So, who are these potential House wrongdoers?

We may soon find out about three of them.. The panel has to release its report on a case after the House ethics subcommittee (the one made up of lawmakers) concludes its own investigation “or no later than one year” after the subcommittee begins investigating. In the quarterly report released on Tuesday, the panel indicated three cases fit that description and will be released to the public on Oct. 30. unless the House ethics panel announces it is launching more formal probes into the three cases.

In other words, stay tuned for a Friday announcement by the House ethics committee, which will do everything it can to keep the details of these cases out of the public eye.

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