Why an Ethics Report on a Questionable Congressional Trip Will Stay Secret

Office of Congressional Ethics reports are usually made public. But the one on a controversial member trip to Azerbaijan wasn't, and watchdog groups aren't happy.

Nearly a month ago, the House Ethics Committee released its own report on a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan, which cleared nine lawmakers of violating any House rules. But there's another, potentially more damning report on the same subject—one that may never see the light of day.

On Wednesday, ten civic organizations and academics sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee'schairman and ranking member expressing displeasure that the panel didn't publicly disclose findings by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, non-partisan entity. The signatories—which includes Public Citizen, Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and more—allege this move is unusual and distressing. Meanwhile, the committee's report says in this case, the OCE shouldn't have sent over findings in the first place.

"This decision is especially concerning because the Committee itself played a decisive role in approving the Members' travel to Azerbaijan," the letter to the panel states. "It is unknown whether the OCE's findings shed any light of the role of the Committee in approving these trips."

Before the members accepted the trip, they sought guidance from the House Ethics Committee. The trip was approved. But after the May 2013 conference titled "U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future," the true source of funding for the lawmakers' trip came into question.

On Jan. 29, OCE told the House Ethics Committee that it had begun a preliminary review of the matter, and on March 2, OCE informed the panel it had moved into a second phase review. Two days later, the panel formally requested OCE stop its review of the members and move the matter to the committee—known as "cease and refer"—because the panel had its own ongoing investigation, according to the House Ethics Committee's report on the Azerbaijan trip.

OCE didn't immediately do so, prompting the committee to ask again on April 21. On May 8, OCE sent over thousands of pages of information, which included nine "findings."

Once OCE refers the matter to the House Ethics Committee, the findings are, except in a few cases, publicly released—either within 90 days or after the Ethics panel has completed its own review. (If the OCE board and the committee both recommend dismissal, then the report never has to be made public, according to OCE's website.)

"We are concerned about the Committee's unprecedented decision not to release the OCE's findings in circumstances where the Members under investigation remain within the Ethics Committee's jurisdiction," the letter states. It added: "The only other cases involving Members where the Committee did not release OCE's findings were when the subjects of the OCE reports resigned first—Nathan Deal and Paul Broun."

But the committee report states that "due to the Committee's cease-and-refer request, OCE had no authority to send findings to the Committee," and so the panel viewed the findings as supporting documentation. (The House Ethics Committee declined to comment for this story.)

Wednesday's letter also takes issue with the "cease and refer" request, alleging that the committee hadn't proven it had taken the all the necessary steps to take over the matter.

"While we understand that the Committee claims it is not obliged to release OCE's findings because the Committee had sent OCE a 'cease and refer' order and the Committee considered the findings 'supporting documentation,' it is not clear under House rules that the 'cease and refer' order was indeed valid," the letter states. "Thus, the decision to withhold OCE's findings may have violated House rules."

Though the writers of the letter make clear they don't know exactly what's in OCE's report, the letter makes the case for transparency: "In any case, the public should have access to that information."