Published December 23, 2015
WASHINGTON -- Stung by a series of inquiries, nearly half the members of the Congressional Black Caucus want to rein in an independent ethics office that Democrats trumpeted after gaining control of Congress.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and 19 fellow black lawmakers in the all-Democratic caucus quietly introduced a resolution last week that would restrict the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics to open new investigations and make its findings public. The office, formed by Congress in 2008, is run by a panel of private citizens.
Black caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., is among the sponsors, but the full 42-member caucus did not endorse the measure. Lee declined comment through a spokesman.
The absence of support from top Democratic leaders for Fudge's proposal -- including from House Whip Jim Clyburn, a black caucus member from South Carolina -- suggests that it isn't going anywhere. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered no immediate comment.
Since its inception, the ethics office has investigated at least eight black caucus members, including veteran Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and five others in that group over privately funded trips to the Caribbean. Many of them are among the co-sponsors of Fudge's resolution, although Rangel is not.
In a statement, Fudge argued that the new office -- which can initiate investigations and refer findings but doesn't have the power to sanction lawmakers -- is too powerful. She said her changes would prevent "trials in the court of public opinion."
"The processes must be fair to all people involved," Fudge said in a statement. "OCE is currently the accuser, judge, and jury."
The ethics office essentially serves as an advisory board to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, a congressional committee run by lawmakers who are charged with policing their colleagues.
The citizen-run ethics panel is far more open than the notoriously secretive standards committee, publicizing its findings after referring them to the ethics committee.
Fudge's proposal would remove that power and allow lawmakers on the standards committee to seal from public view the ethics office's findings on matters deemed meritless.
The resolution would make it harder for the ethics office to initiate investigations, requiring a sworn complaint from a citizen claiming personal knowledge of an alleged violation. That could prevent complaints from watchdog groups, for example.
It would also prevent the standards committee from taking a referral from the ethics office within 60 days before an election in which the subject of the case is a candidate.
The resolution was first reported by The New York Times.