Office of Congressional Ethics
The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), established by the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2008, is an independent, non-partisan entity charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct against members of the House of Representatives and their staff and, when appropriate, referring matters to the United States House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly referred to as the Ethics Committee.
As its mission, the office strives to “give the public a 'window' into ethics enforcement in the United States House of Representatives.” Governed by an eight-person Board of Directors, Members of the OCE Board are private citizens and cannot serve as members of Congress or work for the federal government. The OCE lacks subpoena power and must complete each review in a relatively short period of time—approximately three months at most.
The OCE review process requires approval of the board at each step. In order to open a preliminary review lasting no longer than 30 days, there must be "reasonable cause to believe allegations," according to the OCE. In order to proceed to a second phase, or further review, there must be "probably case to believe allegations." The second phase may last no longer than 59 days, including optional 14-day extension. Following completion of second phase review, the OCE board votes to refer a matter to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation for or against further review by the committee. The recommendation comes in the form of a report which must be released to the public unless the OCE recommendation was against further review.
Consequently, the OCE has published nearly two dozen reports on members believed to have violated House rules—leading to cheers from government watchdog groups and to calls by some in Congress for gutting the office, which requires reauthorization at the beginning of each new Congress. "The extent and level of ethics scrutiny the OCE has brought is unprecedented in the House," according to The Hill newspaper, in a Sept. 8, 2010 article on the future of the office.
At least 20 of the OCE's referrals on sitting members of the House of Representatives were published on its website in its first Congressional session of operation—a demonstration, according to the Washington Post, that the office "has taken its mission seriously."
Although the office does not have subpoena power, it has played a significant role in 2010 investigations concerning alleged ethics violations by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.)
The office's launch and first two years were led by Leo Wise, who prior to joining the OCE earned top honors at the United States Department of Justice where he was a member of the Enron task force that successfully prosecuted Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling and the tobacco litigation team that successfully prosecuted the civil racketeering case against the cigarette industry. He joined the United States Department of Justice through the prestigious Attorney General's Honors Program after graduating from Harvard Law School. Wise is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He is also an officer in the United States Navy Reserve.
Wise announced in October 2010 that he was leaving the OCE to join the office of the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland following what OCE Chairman David Skaggs termed an "extraordinary job 'standing up' and managing OCE operations during its first two years."
According to the Sunlight Foundation, "More than anything else the Office of Congressional Ethics has helped to reveal to the public the patent absurdity of the self-policing oversight that members provide through the House Ethics Committee."
Calls to eliminate the office have come from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
"Grumblers on both sides want to gut the ethics office," the New York Times editorial board wrote on Aug. 4, 2010. "That is because it has been fulfilling its mission to put life into the lawmakers' own stultified ethics process, to penetrate the murk of misbehavior and keep the public better informed."
Indeed, keeping the public informed is a paramount responsibility for the OCE, according to its communications director, Jon Steinman. "Providing information to the public, improving transparency, is a central element of the OCE's mission," Steinman said, in the New York Times on March 29, 2010.
A number of outside government groups, watchdogs and editorial writers have taken up the OCE's cause and worked to ensure it would survive into another Congress. They have sent letters supporting the OCE to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner.
The OCE opened dozens of reviews, based on publicly available information, submissions from the public, press accounts and other sources of information. It was created by Speaker Pelosi as part of her effort to "drain the swamp" of corruption in official Washington that had garnered so much attention in the preceding congressional sessions. This included the multiple ethical and criminal violations stemming from, among others, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and former representatives Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Mark Foley and William J. Jefferson.
Board of Directors
- David Skaggs, Co-Chair
- Porter Goss, Co-Chair
- Yvonne Burke
- Jay Eagen
- Karan English
- William Frenzel
- Allison Hayward
- Abner Mikva
- "Welcome to the New Online OCE". Office of Congressional Ethics Blog. June 1, 2010. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- "Process - Office of Congressional Ethics". Office of Congressional Ethics. June 1, 2010. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- Crabtree, Susan (September 8, 2010). "House GOP leaders dodge questions on the future of ethics office". The Hill. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- "Resolution threatens power of Office of Congressional Ethics". The Washington Post. June 4, 2010. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- "Someone New is Watching". The New York Times. April 1, 2010.
- Melanie Sloan (October 13, 2010). "26 Sitting Lawmakers Corrupting the Halls of Congress". The Huffington Post.
- "New York Times Profile on the Office of Congressional Ethics". New York Times. March 17, 2010. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- Lipton, Eric (March 22, 2010). "House Ethics Office Gains, Dismissals Aside". The New York Times. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- Newton-Small, Jay (August 5, 2010). "The Ethics Watchdog Making Democrats Squirm". Time Magazine. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- Schouten, Fredreka (October 15, 2010). "House ethics chief Leo Wise resigns". USA Today. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- "Don't Kill the Office of Congressional Ethics". Sunlight Foundation. September 13, 2010. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- "Not Too Much Ethics, Please". The New York Times. August 4, 2010. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- Lipton, Eric (March 29, 2010). "Ethics Report Faults Ex-Congressman". The New York Times. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- "Reform Coalition Urges Speaker Pelosi to Back Office of Congressional Ethics Against Challenges". The Campaign Legal Center. June 9, 2010. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- Smith, Sylvia (October 3, 2010). "Ethics upgrade cleaning House". Journal Gazette. Retrieved November 1, 2010.
- "Board & Staff". Office of Congressional Ethics. September 7, 2010. Retrieved 27 October 2010.