S.1 In Action: Senate Ethics Committee Reports


I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog deriding the Senate Ethics Committee – and the frivolous complaints leveled by Sen. John Ensign against the current ethics process – for failing to investigate Senators who have allegedly violated the trust of their office (or the law, in the case of Sen. Ted Stevens). Thanks to the recently passed ethics bill, S.1, we finally get some transparency in the Ethics Committee and some statistical information about the committee’s activities. The Committee is now required to issue an annual report of activity. Here are some highlights:

Number of alleged violations received in 2007 (from any source): 95 (not including the 16 carried over from 2006)

Number of alleged violations dismissed in 2007 (including 7 cases carried over from 2006): 86 (71 for lack of jurisdiction; 15 for failure to provide sufficient facts)

Number of alleged violations which resulted in a preliminary hearing: 16 (includes 9 matters carried over from 2006 and 5 matters that have carried into 2008)

Number of alleged violations that resulted in adjudicatory review: 0

Number of alleged violations dismissed for lack of substantial merit: 11 (includes 7 matters carried over from 2006)

Number of matters resulting in disciplinary action: 0

Looking at those numbers I can reach a few conclusions. The first thing people will jump to is that the Ethics Committee is still conducting 5 investigations that have carried over from either 2006 or 2007. We know that retiring Sen. Pete Domenici is under investigation for his role in the Attorney purge scandal and that the committee may be investigating Sen. Larry Craig, also retiring, for his role in a Minneapolis airport bathroom (although I don’t understand what Senate Rule he violated). We can determine that 2 of these cases have carried over from 2006 by doing the math. We know that 16 cases were carried over from 2006 and that 14 of these were dismissed – 7 dismissed out of hand and 7 dismissed after a preliminary hearing – leaving us with 2 cases carried from 2006 that are still proceeding into 2008. (If you want to speculate as to who these Senators – or Senate aides – are please do so in the comments.)

The next thing to take from this report is that the Ethics Committee is very careful about which alleged violations it moves forward with. Despite the claims by Sen. Ensign that the Ethics Committee receives complaints on napkins and written in crayon and that this is damaging to Senators, we know now that of the 111 alleged violations received in 2007 and carried over from 2006, 86 were dismissed out of hand for lack of jurisdiction and for failure to provide sufficient facts. The Committee is only carrying over 5 cases from 2007, 2 of which we have determined are from 2006. Thus we can state that of the 111 alleged violations received or carried over, 5 have led to on-going investigations, a rate of 4.5%. It doesn’t sound like the Committee is having difficulty sifting through these complaints and it certainly doesn’t mean that every allegation submitted amounts to anything substantive.

I’ve included the most relevant information from the Committee’s first annual report on their activity in this post, but check the rest out for your self.

Despite the clear loopholes in the ethics bill’s lobbying and gift restrictions, the transparency provisions are beginning to funnel more information into the arms of the public. As more committees update their rules to comply with S.1, and we begin to receive the new reports and visit the Web site mandated under S.1, we will realize that the true legacy of the ethics bill will be the greater public access to information, allowing better citizen oversight and informed decision making, granted by the bill’s transparency provisions.