Blog — Elections
All the postmortems on congressional dysfunction in 2013 appear to have overlooked an unexpected example of legislative productivity by the Senate Ethics Committee, which morphed into an investigative juggernaut just long enough to dismiss our complaint against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Last April, CREW filed complaints against the minority leader with the ethics committee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) based on a Mother Jones report detailing a meeting Sen. McConnell had with his staff to discuss opposition research against potential opponents. A recording of the meeting suggested members of the senator’s taxpayer-funded legislative staff had conducted campaign research while on official time, a violation of federal law and Senate ethics rules.
In a letter dated December 11, 2013 — exactly eight months after CREW filed its complaints — John C. Sassaman, the committee’s chief counsel and staff director, informed CREW that “after a lengthy investigation” that “carefully evaluated the allegations,” the committee had dismissed our complaint.
If an eight-month investigation meets the committee’s definition of “lengthy,” we wonder how it might describe the time it’s taken to investigate our other complaints. Since CREW began operating in 2003, we have filed ethics complaints against 21 senators and one Senate staff member. Most of these matters dragged on for years, and the committee frequently failed to respond in any way.
For instance, the committee ignored complaints against then-Sens. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) for accepting improper gifts and a complaint against then-Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) for improperly pressuring the White House to remove a U.S. Attorney due to a disagreement the senator had with the U.S. attorney’s brother.
When the committee has responded to CREW, it has rarely held members accountable for misconduct, often waving off serious allegations based on technicalities. After CREW filed complaints against then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) over insider-trading allegations in 2005, the committee waited until January 2007 before writing that it no longer had jurisdiction in the matter because Sen. Frist had retired. After Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) phone number appeared on the call list of a D.C. madam, the committee dismissed our complaint alleging that solicitation of prostitutes did not reflect creditably on the Senate because the alleged misconduct took place while Sen. Vitter was in the House, not the Senate.
The committee dismissed our complaints against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) for improperly accepting favorable terms on their mortgages as part of the Countrywide scandal, explaining that the Senate rules prohibiting these special benefits were not spelled out clearly enough — a rationale so ludicrous CREW floated Battered Committee Syndrome as a possible explanation for the panel’s failure to act.
It’s hard to think of another example of the committee acting with such alacrity to exonerate a senator. Moreover, the committee’s defensive tone — assuring that it had reached its findings after careful consideration — seems unprecedented.
Sen. McConnell is no doubt pleased by the speed with which the committee dismissed CREW’s complaint as he looks toward a competitive reelection campaign this year. Given the serious nature of the allegations against his campaign, the public should hope the FBI takes the matter more seriously, as yet another Washington regulator demonstrates its refusal to hold the powerful accountable for wrongdoing.
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