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Public Advocates Accuse House Ethics Committee of Undermining House Ethics

Public Advocates Accuse House Ethics Committee of Undermining House Ethics

A group of academics and civic organizations is calling on the House Ethics Committee to release an independent investigation into whether Azerbaijan paid for House lawmakers to travel to Baku in a potential violation of House rules against trips funded by foreign governments.

In January, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent body charged with determining if House members break rules governing lawmaker’s conduct, initiated its review of the 2013 trip to Baku by 10 members of Congress and 32 staff members. It submitted its report to the Ethics Committee in May. On July 31, the committee announced its own investigation had found no wrongdoing on behalf of the lawmakers and their staff, and refused to make OCE’s report public.

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the advocacy group Public Citizen, said it was the first time the Ethics Committee has not released an OCE report on active members of Congress.

“This failure by the ethics committee to release the OCE report can fundamentally undermine OCE,” Holman told Foreign Policy Wednesday. “OCE’s strength is the fact that it can gather information and tell the public what it found. It’s what made the ethics process work.”

Public Citizen is one of the 10 signatories on a letter, released Wednesday, calling for the committee to make the OCE report public.

A spokesman for the Ethics Committee had no comment on the letter. The House members in question are Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.),then-Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.).

Of these, Clarke is the only member who also sits on the Ethics Committee. Her office did not answer questions about why the report has not been made public.

Lingering over the controversy surrounding the trip is a May 13, 2015 Washington Post report about the confidential OCE investigation, which had determined “lawmakers and their staff members received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenses, silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs valued at $2,500 to $10,000…Airfare for the lawmakers and some of their spouses cost $112,899, travel invoices show.”

The Post also reported that the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, SOCAR, channeled $750,000 through U.S.-based nonprofits to hide the source of funding for the conference.

In a July 31 announcement, the House Ethics Committee said it “found no evidence that the members and staff who participated in the trip knowingly violated any House Rule, law, regulation, or other standard of conduct.” It also said it would not release the OCE report, and that the committee had asked the office to stop its investigation in March.  

OCE was formed seven years ago to investigate potential wrongdoing by lawmakers. Part of the reason for its creation was illegal funding of lawmaker travel paid for by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

If the Post report is true, lawmakers who traveled to Azerbaijan might have violated congressional rules that forbid foreign governments from influencing U.S. policy.

OCE has refused to make this report public, despite the Post having a copy of it. The office told FP Wednesday it had no comment on the letter.

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