Wynn Tests New Transparency Laws


Lame duck Rep. Al Wynn, recently defeated in a Democratic primary, announced that he would be retiring from Congress early to take a lobbying job with the law firm Dickstein Shapiro this June. Unlike previous members who have announced their retirement through the revolving door Wynn will remain in Congress, with a fully negotiated and signed contract to work at the firm, until June, giving him unparralleled access for a newly minted lobbyist. Dickstein Shapiro has already released a press release announcing the hire. Unlike Wynn, Trent Lott, Richard Baker, and Billy Tauzin all retired quickly upon announcing their completed lobbying job negotiations. This poses serious conflict of interest questions for Wynn but also serves as a true test of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act and its provisions governing member job negotiations (a provision already filled with loopholes). The Point of Order blog explains:

Congressman Albert Wynn has announced that he will leave the House in June and join the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro. According to today’s Roll Call: “Wynn claims that he got clearance from the House ethics committee to begin negotiating for his Dickstein Shapiro job after he lost his primary in February, but he refuses to disclose the document. He has filed a recusal form with the Clerk of the House certifying he will avoid actions that will create the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

What puzzles me is that statement that Wynn “refuses to disclose the document.” Section 301 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act amended House Rule 27 to establish three new requirements for Members (and officers/senior staff) who conduct negotiations for future employment: (1) within 3 business days after commencement of any negotiation or agreement for future employment or compensation, the Member must file a “statement of disclosure” with the House Ethics Committee; (2) the Member must recuse himself from “any matter in which there is a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict of interest” and notify the House Ethics Committee of such recusal; and (3) upon making the required recusal, the Member is required to submit the “statement of disclosure” to the Clerk for public disclosure.

As the Ethics Committee explains in a March 28, 2008 memorandum (interestingly, issued the day after Wynn’s departure was announced): “All Members, officers, and very senior staff who recuse themselves from official matters pursuant to Rule 27 must complete and submit the recusal form to the Committee. At that time, Members must also submit to the Clerk a copy of the completed employment negotiation form regarding that private entity, which they had previously submitted to the Committee. The Clerk will make that form available for public disclosure.” (emphasis in original).

The Roll Call editorial indicates that Congressman Wynn has filed a recusal form with the Clerk. This is somewhat confusing since the obligation is to file the recusal form with the Ethics Committee. Perhaps Wynn is contending that he has not yet recused himself in accordance with Rule 27 but is merely filing a notice of intent to recuse himself at some later date. If he has actually recused himself, however, he is clearly obligated to submit his previously-filed statement of disclosure to the Clerk, and the Clerk is required to make that statement public.

Wynn must publicly disclose these documents and similarly must recuse himself from committee business. It appears as though he is taking steps to remove himself from the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a fellow Maryland Democrat, is encouraging Wynn to do so.

If the new ethics and transparency laws passed in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act are to be taken seriously they must be enforced. This is a major test of the bill and the leadership ought to step up and require Wynn to fully comply with the laws. They should also consider the absurdity of allowing members to determine whether or not their job negotiations should be secret or not based on a personal determination of whether of not there is a conflict of interest.