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The first director of the Office of Congressional Ethics explains why House Republicans targeted it

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Pedestrians walk outside of the U Photo by Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Facing a public outcry and a warning from their president-elect, House Republicans reversed course on Tuesday and scrapped a proposal (for now) to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Leo Wise was amazed. Named the first director of the OCE in 2008, Wise says that perhaps the most important thing to know about the agency is not its broad, sweeping powers to protect House ethics but how little it can actually do.

“This is a fact-gathering operation. All it does it gather facts,” says Wise, who served as director from 2008 to 2010. “The idea that [the members are] being abused by this doesn’t make any sense.”

Unlike other similar agencies, the OCE can’t issue sanctions. It can’t force members of the House to testify or turn over evidence and documents. Congressional members ultimately retain authority over its decisions. The OCE can’t even say if it thinks a member of the House did something wrong.

What the OCE can do is much simpler: issue fact-based reports through investigations conducted by the attorneys on its staff. (The investigations are authorized and approved by an eight-member board of directors, mostly composed of former legislators.) Unlike a stalemated partisan body, the OCE is a bipartisan and independent commission that acts free of political interference.

That this power alone looked threatening to Congress tells us something about the potential for ethics violations on the Hill — and the extent to which some GOP members may oppose good-government safeguards. (Moreover, even though Republicans backtracked today, they also left the possibility of returning to rolling back the OCE in the future.)

I spoke with Wise on Tuesday. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

A bulwark against House corruption

WASHINGTON DC - DECEMBER 15:  Tourists gather around the US Cap Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Jeff Stein

Why was the OCE created in the first place, and what was its purpose?

Leo Wise

The OCE was created in the wake of the [Jack] Abramoff–related corruption scandals, and it was born of a desire to introduce transparency into an ethics process that lacked it.

For the first time, it opened a way for the public to bring concerns of House members’ behavior — and for the public to get to see what the members had done related to potential misconduct.

Jeff Stein

And so why didn’t the existing process — the investigations through the House Ethics Committee — take care of that?

Leo Wise

One of the real deficiencies with the existing process was how secretive the process was. There was so little transparency or accountability for how the ethics process worked; unlike other congressional committees, the ethics committee doesn’t operate in public or make any kinds of public reporting of what they’ve found and what they’ve done.

There was a raft of scandals being addressed by law enforcement and investigative journalism, but there was a black box within the institution itself that had the responsibility to police its members. The effort was made to shine light into that black box and give the public a way to see whether there were facts in support of these allegations — and to see how members and staff were behaving within the institution.

There are inspectors general in nearly all federal agencies. And they do internal reviews, audits, investigations — and they issue detailed reports to the public describing how those agencies are run and a good way to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse in the executive branch.

There was nothing like that in the House. There’s an inspector general, but it has a very narrow and circumscribed mandate because it only pertains to the contracting process. This was akin to that, but for ethics.

It doesn’t find people guilty of committing crimes or breaking the law; it gathers facts and presents them to the public. This was an exercise in fact-finding in a way that the decision-makers in the House — so we can produce the facts, and then everyone can draw their own conclusions.

How even the OCE’s modest measures met fierce resistance

Speaker John Boehner's Resignation Speech and the Election of the New Speaker Paul D. Ryan Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Jeff Stein

I imagine this didn’t make you the most popular man on the Hill. How much resistance was there to your work?

Leo Wise

There was enormous resistance. We were being screamed at in a tirade of curses, thrown out of a member’s office, and threatened. There was huge resistance to even the idea of having to talk to us — to the notion that questions would be raised. So it was very challenging right from the start.

There were members who behaved responsibly and professionally. But it ran the gamut of opposition, with all sorts of threats about getting the office shut down or the funding for our office cut.

One incident where we got screamed at and thrown out of the office — it was just an initial meeting with a member. It wasn’t some confrontational interview. At the start of this process, which is very sensitive to members and their political concerns, we’d set up a meeting to come and directly talk to the member about the allegation the board had authorized us to look into.

It wasn’t a big public hearing. [The members] could decide what, if any, staff they wanted to have involved or if they wanted to retain legal counsel.

Once we handed the member a sealed envelope — it had just one or two sentences about the subject matter we were authorized to look into — and the member erupted at that. It was just the fact that we had the temerity, even just as staff, to raise a question that provoked this fury from a senior member who had been there for a long time.

Jeff Stein

I wanted to bore into what kind of impropriety was being investigated. What was being guarded against?

Leo Wise

We looked at trips that were improperly funded by corporations; at members getting tax breaks they weren’t entitled to; at how the earmark process was being run.

The investigation the office did into earmarks really sticks out. There were allegations that members were essentially trading earmarks for campaign contributions or actual remunerations — for the businesses they and their families were associated with.

The office doesn’t decide if someone has broken the law or broken the rules. But based on the factual record made public through us, the House decided to ban earmarks, and the Senate followed suit. That was a profound change that occurred because of throwing light on what was happening here.

Those reports were hundreds of pages long and had thousands of emails and dozens of interviews. It was a wholesale investigation of that process.

These pots of public money were being divvied up without any oversight, slipped into bills without identifying by whom and at whose request. Certain officers were essentially acting as venture capital firms, funding businesses [through the government] that they or their donor had an interest in. And it was just eating up a ton of the time of the members. You had offices devoting huge amounts of time and resources to this ... all aspects of it were really surprising.

Jeff Stein

Why couldn’t the ethics committee do this work?

Leo Wise

It’s a great question. Part of the difficulty here is that because of the secrecy [of that committee], you don’t know what they’re doing, so you don’t know what they’re capable of or what they’re willfully ignoring. There’s so little visibility into what’s actually going on. You can’t answer the question, “Why couldn’t the ethics committee do this?”

We also investigated congressional travel improperly financed by corporate sponsors. There was a trip to the Caribbean — the person who funded that trip eventually admitted to lying to congressional investigators and pleaded guilty in the Southern District.

Part of the core of this was the Abramoff trip to Scotland, which was just one example of lobbyist-funded, lavish trips. So the House instituted a clearance process for travel, but what we found was how deficient that process was.

Once there was a trip sponsored by corporations, and it was plain that was the case. The members were literally standing in front of banners with the company names on it, standing there in the opening ceremonies with banks labeled all over it. And yet that trip had passed muster.

And then trips financed by foreign governments were further evidence of how deficient that process was. If you’re not looking at what’s not being submitted for approval and submitting it to some degree of scrutiny, then there’s abuse. And that wouldn’t have been revealed without the Office of Congressional Ethics.

The limits of the OCE

House Cancels Leadership Elections After Kevin McCarthy Pulls Out
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who opposed House Republican efforts to gut the OCE.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jeff Stein

You could imagine a commission with a disciplinarian ability receiving blowback from members. And that could be more defensible to take aim at, whereas this seems pretty minimal to what they could have done — making it all the more remarkable this still has a target on its back.

Leo Wise

Yes, absolutely. This is a fact-gathering operation. All it does it gather facts: Did someone go on a trip? Who paid for it? Did they sponsor an earmark? What was their relationship with the recipient?

It doesn’t draw any normative conclusions. Those are for the House to draw. So the objection to facts coming to light is what this all boils down to. It’s to say the public doesn’t deserve to know what the members of staff are up to, or that they can’t be trusted with that information.

There’s an objection that members get slandered by this process. But you can’t be slandered by the facts — the facts are what they are. There were never any due process issues in the two years I was there. Members had the right to address the board before the board votes. Members only cooperate if they choose to — they can’t be compelled to testify or produce documents. They can retain counsel and engage the process in their own terms almost any way they want to. So the idea that they’re being abused by this doesn’t make any sense.

Jeff Stein

What was your reaction to the news that Republicans considered gutting this?

Leo Wise

I was shocked. The way it was done over a federal holiday, late at night, and in a secret conference vote. The public’s window into the ethics process was going to be slammed shut — I think that’s really shocking.