The Office of Congressional Ethics has released its findings in a case regarding a trip that nine lawmakers took to Azerbaijan—a move that bucks the House Ethics Committee’s decision not to release these documents after the panel cleared all members of wrongdoing.
The OCE’s decision underscores the tension that has emerged in this case since the ethics panel asked that it take over the investigation. At that time, OCE—the House’s independent investigative arm—continued to look into the matter and later sent over findings to the committee, which the ethics panel declined to publicly disclose.
Watchdog groups have fought for the findings to be unveiled. An August letter from 10 civic organizations and academics to House Ethics Committee Chairman Charlie Dent and the top Democrat, Rep. Linda Sanchez, argued that whatever OCE found, “the public should have access to that information.”
On Wednesday, the OCE released the findings on its website with a statement explaining this decision. Both the OCE and the House Ethics Committee declined to comment for this story.
On July 31, the House Ethics Committee cleared the nine lawmakers on a May 2013 Azerbaijan trip whose financial backers had come under question, saying the members had “acted in good faith, and the evidence was inconclusive as to the true source of the funds for the travel.” Before attending the conference titled “U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future,” the House Ethics Committee had approved the trip, based on the members’ submissions that included the sponsors’ statements and representations, according to the panel’s July report.
In its investigation, the Ethics Committee issued 12 subpoenas and 18 voluntary requests for information, collecting almost 190,000 pages of materials and interviewing 10 witnesses.
But there’s more to the story.
On Jan. 29, OCE informed the Ethics Committee that it had begun a preliminary review of the trip, and on March 2, OCE said it had moved to a second-phase review. Two days later, the ethics panel formally requested that OCE halt its review and hand the matter over to the committee—called a “cease-and-refer” request—because the panel had an ongoing investigation of the matter and “possessed more complete information than OCE,” according to the House Ethics Committee report on the Azerbaijan trip.
“Because no such investigation had been begun by the committee, the OCE board declined to stop its investigations,” according to the statement OCE’s board made Wednesday on the decision to release the findings.
On May 8, OCE sent over thousands of pages of information, which included nine “findings.” According to the House Ethics Committee’s report, the OCE didn’t have the authority to send these documents to the committee, since it had asked OCE to cease and refer its investigation. Thus, the panel viewed the information as “supporting documentation” rather than findings (which are, except for a few cases, publicly released—but not if both the board and the committee recommend dismissal or if a law enforcement agency requests that it be held back). Additionally, the ethics committee noted it didn’t want to impede with a possible Justice Department investigation as “those materials contain evidence of possible criminal misconduct by several non-House individuals and entities.”
But OCE contends that the information should be released, and on Wednesday, publicly unveiled its findings for the nine lawmakers.
“Under these circumstances, House Rules and House Resolution 895 require disclosure of the Findings of Fact,” the OCE board stated.