WASHINGTON ― Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) blamed “left-wing activist groups” on Thursday for making him the target of an ethics investigation that he says forced him to step down as leader of the House Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
But that story doesn’t check out.
MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group, and two nonpartisan ethics groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21, filed ethics complaints against Nunes with the Office of Congressional Ethics on March 28. But it’s not yet clear whether that office will even investigate him.
The House Ethics Committee, meanwhile, does not appear to have relied on those complaints to launch its own investigation into whether Nunes broke House rules by improperly disclosing classified information.
House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and ranking member Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said in a statement on Thursday that they were investigating Nunes based on “public allegations” — presumably a reference to the multiple news reports indicating he’d discussed classified information on live television. Even if “public allegations” include MoveOn.org’s complaint, that complaint itself cites media reports on Nunes’ actions.
And furthermore, the House ethics investigation Nunes is now facing could be very different from the formal, public probe that “left-wing” groups are probably hoping for. The House committee is investigating Nunes under Committee Rule 18(a) ― which allows the committee to “consider any information in its possession” that indicates a House member violated “any law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct” related to his or her duties.
That Nunes stepped down over this probe ― and blamed liberals ― is notable, since this type of investigation is preliminary and doesn’t even necessarily mean Nunes will ever face punishment related to it.
Committee investigations launched under Rule 18(a) do not involve a full investigative subcommittee, and can be as simple as a Google search. The committee can decide to take up a formal investigation after this first step, but it’s never a certainty that it will.
“It is the most informal and uncertain form of Ethics Committee investigation that they can conduct,” Bryson Morgan, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale and former investigative counsel for the Office of Congressional Ethics, told The Huffington Post.
These preliminary investigations also have no public reporting requirements and can go on for as long as the committee desires. It is out of the ordinary for the committee to even announce this type of investigation publicly, as it has for Nunes. “Some of these 18(a) investigations run for years without resolution,” said Morgan. “It doesn’t provide much transparency into what is going on.”
What’s also notable is that launching this type of an investigation gives the ethics committee the power to tell the Office of Congressional Ethics to back off any of its own potential investigations. While the House committee has a history of going easy on fellow congressmen, the OCE ― an independent, nonpartisan entity ― has a record of reaching much harsher conclusions in its investigations.
Some observers suspect the committee stepped in early to avoid OCE getting involved with the Nunes allegations.
“The Ethics Committee is not known to act quickly in the past, so that could be a motive there,” said Morgan. “It’s a little bit of a race.”
The House Ethics Committee did not respond to a request for comment. The Office of Congressional Ethics declined to comment.
Morgan’s not the only person questioning the committee’s intentions. “The good news is the House Ethics Committee is doing what it should do,” said Meredith McGehee, an ethics expert at the nonpartisan campaign finance reform group Issue One. “It’s saying there’s been a lot of public information out there on these allegations of sharing classified information. That is a serious allegation and it raises allegations of violations of House Rules. The bad news is: Will they have the credibility and will they in fact conduct a credible investigation?”
Independent ethics watchdogs have long questioned the seriousness of the ethics committee’s investigations. Congress created the OCE after the committee failed to punish unethical activities of congressmen caught up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
A House Democratic aide, who did not want to be publicly named due to the sensitivity of congressional ethics investigations, told HuffPost it was unlikely that ranking committee member Deutch would join an investigation like this without an assurance that it would be taken seriously. “If they pull this behind the curtain, there will be more agitation,” the aide said.
Morgan also said he’s hopeful that the committee’s very public action on the Nunes investigation means that it is taking the allegations against him seriously.
“I hesitate to be very critical of the ethics committee because there’s a possibility that this could be a prelude to an investigative subcommittee,” he said.