Hill Ethics Investigations on the Rise

The Office of Congressional Ethics has been opening probes at a quicker pace than in the previous Congress.

National Journal

The Office of Congressional Ethics boosted its workload at the start of the 114th Congress, taking a preliminary look at 15 possible ethics violations that came across the non-partisan agency's desk in the first three months of the year.

These are cases in which there's a "reasonable basis" to indicate a violation could have occurred. By comparison, the OCE launched a total of 36 such reviews in the entire two years of the 113th Congress. And in all but two of this year's 15 cases, the office found probable cause that an ethics violation may have occurred, meaning a second review has commenced.

The reasons for the stepped-up investigative pace aren't public. That's because the office—an independent entity charged with reviewing allegations against House members, officers, and staffers—keeps its investigations confidential at the start. But its work holds weight. It has the power to refer cases to the House Ethics Committee, which can convene a subcommittee to launch a full-fledged investigation into the matter.

Some high-profile cases that have grabbed media attention could be the subjects of investigations. Media reports have said OCE looked into the allegations of misspending that came out against Rep. Aaron Schock in rapid succession this year, causing him to resign.

The cases of preliminary reviews varied during the past three Congressional sessions: The bulk was comprised of unethical campaign activity (46 percent), with travel (17 percent) and outside employment and income (11 percent) the next most likely alleged allegations. Then comes miscellaneous reasons (9 percent), gifts (8 percent), official allowances (6 percent), and financial disclosure issues (3 percent), according to the office's quarterly report.

OCE's investigations are multi-pronged. The office receives tips from the public, ethics-based organizations, its board members, and others. But that doesn't mean an investigation begins. Rather, two OCE board members decide if and when a 30-day preliminary review is needed.

Only the board can trigger a 45-day second-phase review if enough evidence has been gathered to indicate that there's probable cause an ethics violation occurred (another vote can extend this time frame 14 days).

And finally, the board votes to dismiss the case or send it to the House Ethics Committee if there's substantial reason to believe a violation could have occurred. Then the committee decides if it wants to take up the matter. In March, an ethics subcommittee formed to investigate allegations that Rep. Ed Whitfield violated the chamber's rules by allegedly allowing his wife to use the power of the Kentucky Republican's office to help her work as a Humane Society Legislative Fund lobbyist.

Since February 2009, about 37 percent of OCE's cases have been sent to the House Ethics Committee, and the rest have been dismissed. The office's investigative work remains confidential unless a case is referred for further review to the Ethics Committee, and then it becomes public.