- Jul 9, 2010
- Reaction score
- Chicago Area
- Political Leaning
It's safe to say that Leo Wise has made more enemies than friends in his two years on Capitol Hill. But as staff director and general counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), maybe that's the point.
Wise's leadership of the two-year-old independent office has rubbed many Democrats the wrong way now that two unprecedented ethics trials — of Charles Rangel, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and of Maxine Waters, senior member of the House committee that oversees banking — are slated to take place just weeks ahead of the midterm elections. Democrats came into power promising to "clean out the swamp," as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, and in some respects they have been true to their word; the OCE has investigated more than 60 cases thus far, referring 12 to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for further review. But the airing of so much dirty laundry before an election already fueled by anti-Washington fervor is about the last thing Democrats want.
Caught in the crosshairs are Wise and the OCE. The office was created as a watchdog — it doesn't take complaints, but rather monitors the news and investigates when it sees problems arise. The investigations have to rise to a three-level standard of proof before they are voted on by the office's independent board — made up of mostly former members of Congress — to refer the matter to the House ethics committee for further investigation. The standard, says Wise, "is important because it protects all parties involved against essentially the board recommending further action based on partisan affiliation or other impermissible factors." (See the top 10 political gaffes of 2009.)
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Although the House ethics committee can decide whether it will investigate further, even if it refuses, critics say, the OCE's report remains fodder for the press. "The referral [to the ethics committee] itself can be very embarrassing to the member," says Brian Svoboda, an attorney with Perkins Coie, who has represented members before the committee. "The rules say they're not supposed to draw a conclusion." (Comment on this story.)
But reformers say even those dead-end investigations have served the public. A February report on dubious earmarks in the Pentagon budget process prompted the House to ban earmarks directly tailored for private companies. OCE investigations also led Indiana Republican Mark Souder to admit an affair with a staffer and resign. And though the Rangel case is still pending, the OCE report has already led to a ban on earmarks for "monuments to me" nonprofits like the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York (for which Rangel secured $1.9 million in government funds). "Our report is just fact-finding," insists Wise. "My position is that facts don't tarnish people's reputations. Facts are facts."
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Speaker Pelosi created the OCE after the ethics committee, formed in 1967, had become nearly dormant. In the 1980s and '90s, House ethics had devolved into a vicious gotcha game, one that toppled Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 and reprimanded Republican Speaker (and Wright tormentor) Newt Gingrich eight years later. An atmosphere of mutual assured destruction — in which each side threatened to mount politically motivated ethics cases against the other — led to an uneasy bipartisan truce and a full decade in which the ethics committee took virtually no action. In the meantime, members of Congress ran wild. In the aughts, five Representatives were convicted of federal corruption, an additional three were indicted and nearly a dozen were subjects of FBI probes — all while the ethics committee mostly sat on the sidelines. For instance, the panel took no action against former Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham until he was already serving jail time for trading legislative favors in exchange for bribes.
The aggressive approach that Wise has taken on members of Congress's conduct has been unprecedented, leading to charges of overreach. "[The OCE] doesn't follow any known rules of procedure and has not and does not follow the authorizing resolution's rules and directives," says attorney Cleta Mitchell, who has represented a member before the ethics committee. "Abolish the OCE; give to the [ethics] committee the money and staff that the OCE has been given; provide opportunity for outside persons to file ethics complaints in the House [in the same way] as with the Senate. That will make a huge difference, and then we will at least know what the rules are." Wise strongly disagrees. "I think we have made a contribution, obviously," he says. If the OCE were disbanded, "I think there would be a decrease in ethics enforcement in the House and a decline in the public information that's available to the Congress and to the American public concerning ethics enforcement."
Corruption-busting helped Nancy Pelosi's Democrats win back the House in 2006. The OCE was formed in 2008 -- to clean the swamp. Now that the OCE has been proven effective, Nancy Pelosi will gut it?
Yet some Democrats remain determined to undo their party's most significant ethics reform. Representative Marsha Fudge of Ohio has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by 19 fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), to limit the OCE's power. Fudge, who has complained that the OCE "is currently the accuser, judge and jury," wants to keep OCE reports that don't lead to formal House action from being made public, and would prevent the office from acting on anything but a sworn complaint from an individual with personal knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing. Watchdog groups say those changes would effectively neuter the OCE.
But Pelosi apparently hasn't ruled out such changes. The Speaker met with frustrated CBC members in May, according to a leadership source, and privately indicated that she would be willing to review some ethics rules at the beginning of the next Congress. "The Speaker listened to the concerns of members and stated that all House rules are reviewed at the beginning of every Congress," Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman, told reporters after the meeting. But there's no assurance that Democrats will get to make the rules in the next Congress — not if, come November, the anger over corruption that helped win Democrats a House majority ends up taking it away. OCE, Leo Wise Annoy Democrats Over Corruption Pursuits - TIME
The promise of corruption-busting helped the Dems win back the House in 2006. Now that the office THEY put into existence is actually DOING something, they want to gut it?