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David Fiderer

David Fiderer

Posted: August 5, 2010 02:56 PM

No wonder Maxine Waters demands a speedy hearing on the charges lobbed against her. The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has seen this kind of stunt before, most notably when it accused Leo J. Wise and Omar Ashmawy of lying to Congress. Wise and Ashmawy are the chief lawyers for the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, which filed allegations against Waters one year ago. The OCE is nominally an independent outfit set up to investigate ethical matters concerning House members.

The House Committee, which is equally divided among Democrats and Republicans, never used the word "lie," with regard to Wise and Ashmawy's work product. It didn't need to. The facts spoke for themselves. Consider the OCE's report on Rep. Pete Stark, which alleges:

Representative Fortney Pete Stark has listed a house he owns in Harwood, Maryland as his principal residence on Maryland tax forms. By doing so, Representative Stark received state and county homestead tax credits and any annual increases in his home assessments were capped at no more than 10 percent.

The House Committee's response was unequivocal:

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has alleged that Representative Fortney "Pete" Stark violated Maryland criminal tax law and ethics rules of the House of Representatives by intentionally filing a false application for a Maryland property tax credit.

The evidence clearly establishes that Representative Stark did not receive a tax credit as a result of filing an application for the credit. The evidence also establishes that he did not file a false application for the Maryland property tax credit.

Representative Stark did not seek out the Maryland property tax credit. The State of Maryland required every homeowner in Maryland to fill out a form to determine their eligibility for the tax credit.

Therefore, Representative Stark did not violate House ethics rules. Nor did he run afoul of Maryland's criminal or tax laws.

Stark's property taxes did in fact increase more than 10% a year. The pretext for the OCE report was that Stark made an electronic filing of a tax application, with one mistake, in February 2009. But Stark corrected the error one month later, well before his property tax bill came due in June 2009. The House Committee found that the OCE report excluded an abundance of exculpatory information, and that the OCE treated Stark's situation differently from four other members of Congress.

The House Committee also rebuked the OCE for alleging that Rep. Sam Graves may have violated House Ethics Rules. Graves had invited Brooks Hurst, a representative from the Missouri Soybean Association, to testify at hearings held by the Committee on Small Business. The OCE claimed that this invitation violated House Rules, because Hurst had an investment in two Missouri biofuels plants, in which Graves and his wife had also invested $15,000. Graves' investments were a matter of public record on his financial disclosure forms. The combined investments by Graves and Hurst represented less than 1% of the either biofuel plant.

As the House Committee wrote: "The hearing involved no legislation that would ultimately come to the House floor, and was held solely as a fact-gathering hearing about the impact of the current economic crisis on the renewable fuels industry." The Committee was also clear that the evidence of misconduct added up to zero:

OCE's report and findings did not assert that Representative Graves violated any House rule or standard of conduct, but suggested that his actions created an ''appearance of a conflict of interest.'' The Standards Committee found that no relevant House rule or other standard of conduct prohibits the creation of an appearance of a conflict of interest when selecting witnesses for a committee hearing. In addition, neither the Standards Committee nor OCE identified any evidence that the March 4, 2009, hearing or Mr. Hurst's testimony resulted in any action that could benefit Representative Graves, Mrs. Graves, or Mr. Hurst.

The charges against Stark, Graves and Waters all fit into a common pattern. (For an analysis of the charges against Waters, see this.) In each case, the OCE claims that House members took actions for their own financial benefit; yet those actions resulted in nothing. In each case, those actions seem justified by an obvious and innocuous explanation, which the OCE disregards and sometimes conceals. And in each case, the OCE slices and dices text from the House Rules and the House Ethics Manual so as to twist the meaning of those rules in a way that supports the patently flimsy allegations.

When OCE lawyers Wise and Ashmawy cannot find violations of rules, they invoke catchall phrases that, in the context of their deceitful and selective representation of the underlying facts, are meaningless. According to them, Waters allegedly failed to, "behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House," and may have failed to, "adhere to the spirit and the letter of the Rules." That's a pretty hard case to make when you yourself have been caught attempting to deceive Congress.