WASHINGTON ― In 2013, nine U.S. House members jetted off to Baku, Azerbaijan, beside the Caspian Sea for an all-expenses-paid trip sponsored by a nonprofit source. It was meant to be an “education, cultural, business” experience for the lawmakers.
Not only was their travel completely paid for, but a number of the members received nice gifts: rugs of various sizes, a six-piece crystal tea set, a silk scarf, a DVD box set about Azerbaijan’s president, a briefcase and a paperweight-and-stationery set.
Sponsored trips from nonprofits are not a new perk and are typically noncontroversial. This time was different: The nonprofit approved to pay for the trip by the House Ethics Committee was hiding something.
The OCE eventually cracked the case, figuring out that the so-called nonprofit was actually a front for the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan government had funneled some $750,000 into nonprofit sources to conceal the money’s origin.
Still, the OCE investigation faced resistance from within Congress. The House members said they didn’t know the state-owned oil company was paying for the trip. And some didn’t return gifts they received until the ethics watchdog started its probe.
Now some of those lawmakers on the receiving end of that investigation ― and many more of their colleagues ― want to make sure the office loses the same tools it used to ferret out the Azerbaijan scheme.
Late Monday night, Republicans voted secretly to attach a provision gutting the OCE onto a larger rules package for the House. The measure would have given the Ethics Committee ― which is run by House members ― the power to order the OCE to halt an investigation, bar its board from releasing findings, and prohibit it from contacting law enforcement directly if the independent body learned of possible criminal violations. After intense public backlash, Republicans backed off. The amendment never made it into the final package the House passed Tuesday, but Republicans are promising to push for its return before August.
“The people that spoke out in the Republican conference [against OCE] were all those who had run-ins, and I say that accurately, with OCE, and all have ethical issues,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director with the Campaign Legal Center. “That they are the aggrieved is kind of laughable.”
During the Azerbaijan investigation, conducted in 2015, the Ethics Committee asked the OCE to drop the case ― in what appeared to be the first-ever such request. The OCE didn’t.
Under the Republicans’ proposed provision, the OCE would have to comply if the Ethics Committee directed it to shut down a probe. “The board shall immediately cease any investigation of the matter, and shall notify the individual who is the subject of the review accordingly,” the measure said.
After the OCE handed over its complete findings in the Azerbaijan case to the ethics panel, lawmakers decided to release only a short summary, deeming the independent watchdog’s entire report “not appropriate for release because the referral followed the OCE Board’s decision not to cease its investigations.” In response, the OCE’s board, on which Republicans and Democrats are equally represented, voted unanimously to release all its findings to the public.
Republicans tried to put a clamp on that kind of independence, too, in this month’s measure.
“Nothing ... may be construed to authorize the board of the [OCE] to make any public statement, or release any information or other material to the public or any other entity, unless such statement or information has already been released by the Committee on Ethics or the release of such statement or information has been authorized by the Committee on Ethics,” the amendment stated.
Finally, in the Azerbaijan case, the OCE found that the improper acceptance of paid travel and gifts from a foreign government violated not only ethics rules and standards of conduct, but also federal law. Nearly every case the OCE deals with touches on criminal law, the Azerbaijan matter being no exception.
Again, the Republican amendment took aim at this. It would have required the OCE to “immediately refer the matter to the Committee on Ethics for further review” if an accusation raised the possibility of a criminal law violation. In the process, the measure would have ended the ethics watchdog’s ability to go “directly” to any law enforcement agency.
The aggressive rules change authored by Republicans was a long time coming, building steam over the years as members were placed under the microscope for questionable actions. But this attack, launched on the first day of a new Republican-controlled Congress as the GOP prepares to take over the White House, was the strongest attempt yet to strip all independence and transparency from the OCE.
Congress created this mess by not granting the OCE subpoena powers from the start, McGehee argued. During an investigation, lawmakers typically hire lawyers, who then tell them they don’t have to cooperate with the watchdog. As a result, the OCE ends up treating the lawmakers as hostile witnesses.
McGehee called this week’s assault on the OCE the “diciest” one to date, adding that “it’s clear OCE is going to be under siege” moving forward.
“Draining the swamp is more powerful than even the politicians realize,” she said. “They often think they can control their own message, but when you start making moves that look like they are for your own benefit, the public will in fact respond.”
Republicans plan to take a look at the OCE again before the August recess, some even calling for the office to be abolished altogether.
McGehee, in turn, said she is going to focus on just keeping the OCE independent and transparent, by reminding House members that it benefits them.
“When an allegation comes before OCE and they dismiss it, it has credibility,” she said. “Where do you go to get your reputation restored? Well, go to the OCE.”
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, thinks now is the time for lawmakers who support the OCE to push for permanently reauthorizing it ― so its future doesn’t come into question with every new Congress. He’s also hopeful that after the public uproar over the GOP’s move, lawmakers will grant the office subpoena powers and establish a similar agency to conduct oversight in the Senate.
The truth is that watchdog groups will be hard pressed to find either Republicans or Democrats willing to push for expanding the OCE’s powers.
“Since Republicans have the majority in the House, whether or not we can succeed will depend on whether we can embarrass enough Republicans,” Holman said Tuesday after they withdrew the language gutting the OCE. “But at least now, it’s on the political agenda thanks to the Republican fiasco this morning.”