House Ethics Office Conducting Multiple Probes
By Ben Pershing
More than a year after the House voted to create it, the chamber's Office of Congressional Ethics finally seems to be getting down to work, with at least a half-dozen ongoing investigations currently on its plate.
The OCE, which is run by a bipartisan board of former members of Congress and Hill officials, was established last March to vet allegations against lawmakers and staff and determine whether they merit investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The office is required to report its activities each quarter, and today the office released a report covering the first three months of 2009.
According to the report, the OCE launched a total of 10 "preliminary reviews" at two meetings -- one in February and one in March -- and subsequently authorized six "second-phase" reviews. (It is not clear whether the other four probes are still active, or have been ended.) The difference between the two types of review is the standard of evidence. A preliminary probe begins when two members -- one from each party -- agree that there is "a reasonable basis to believe that a violation may have occurred." The second-phase review comes when members say there is "probable cause" to believe an offense happened.
The OCE can take up an investigation of its own accord, or -- unlike the House ethics committee -- it can review charges made by outside groups. The office reports that it was contacted by 37 "private citizens" through March, though some of those contacts involved people requesting information about the office rather than submitting allegations.
The office may have publicized the volume of its activity, but it doesn't actually have to disclose who it's investigating. Not yet, anyway. The report says none of the second-phase reviews have been concluded yet, which means the office's board hasn't voted to send any of the matters to the ethics committee for further investigation. Only after that happens would OCE tell the public what it has done.
We do know the name of one lawmaker who is under investigation: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (R-Ill.). After word of the probe leaked, Jackson confirmed that he is cooperating with OCE as it reviews his relationship with ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and his efforts to win appointment to President Obama's vacant Senate seat.
Beyond Jackson, it's anyone's guess which lawmakers or aides are currently under OCE's microscope. Several members are currently under federal investigation and/or have been accused of wrongdoing in press reports, but we don't know whether the OCE has actually begun investigating any of them. Also, the ethics committee traditionally refrains from investigating any charges while they are also the subject of federal probes. It's not clear whether OCE will follow the same practice.
So there is a lot we don't know. At the very least, though, today's report does demonstrate that the office has been keeping busy.
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