Another delay in ethics probes of Reps. Schock, Owens

L-R: Reps. Aaron Schock, R-Ill.; Bill Owens, D-N.Y.

Thanks to a parliamentary quirk and a slow start getting organized, the House Ethics Committee will not be releasing information today about the ethics probes into two members of Congress. 

In December the panel set today as the deadline for announcing how it would proceed in two separate ethics cases that charged:

  • Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., of soliciting an illegally large contribution to a super PAC, and
  • Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., of violating House rules by taking a foreign trip paid for by lobbyists (Owens has since reimbursed the funder). 

Now the committee is backtracking on that deadline because it has not had its first organizational meeting since the 113th Congress convened on Jan. 3. Constitutionally, it's not even a committee yet; it still has to adopt rules that will allow the cases from the last Congress to carry over to the current one. 

Of the 21 congressional committees, the ethics panel is one of four that has yet to formally organize, along with the Budget, Intelligence and Administration committees. 

The procedural snafu means there is a further delay in releasing the findings of a separate, independent body called the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into the activities of Schock and Owens. The independent body referred the cases to the Ethics Committee, comprised of members of Congress, in August. Committee rules called for a decision to be announced about the cases within 45 days, but because there's been an election and the swearing-in of a new Congress since then, the ethics panel has to be officially reconstituted before it can do business. 

Schock, who is considering a run for governor, asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to make a $25,000 donation from his leadership PAC to a super PAC working to reelect another Illinois Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger. The donation was politically controversial because Cantor was taking sides against a more senior GOP House member, Don Manzullo, who had been paired against Kinzinger in a redistricting matchup. But it's also legally shaky because federal elected officials are legally prohibited from raising funds in increments larger than $5,000. 

Owens took a trip to Taiwan arranged by lobbyists, including former New York Sen. Al D’Amato. After ProPublica wrote about the trip, Owens said he would reimburse the trip costs to its sponsor, the Chinese Culture University. 

The committee can either clear the lawmakers of wrongdoing and release the findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics on the cases, or form a subcommittee to begin a formal investigation. An announcement about the Schock and Owens cases is expected shortly after the ethics committee holds its first official meeting of the year.

Two years ago, in a similar situation, the Ethics Committee managed to make the 45-day deadline for issuing rulings on cases taken up in the last Congress.

But not this time. Still, former House general counsel Stan Brand, a Washington lawyer who has handled many prominent cases before congressional ethics panels, says there’s no funny business here. 

Each House committee starts anew with each Congress, he said. “They don’t exist until they are reconstituted for constitutional purposes,” Brand said.

That technicality was probably overlooked when aides wrote the rules for the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was created in 2008, he added. 

The panel, led by incoming chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and returning ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., has until Feb. 15 to officially form itself and adopt new rules. 

(Photo credit: U.S. House of Representatives)