Against the Rules
03.25.14 2:45 AM ET
Mixin’ Money = Mo’ Problems
The House Ethics committee announced on Monday that it would continue its review of high-ranking Washington State Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
“[T]here is substantial reason to believe that Representative McMorris Rodgers used congressional funds, staff and office space for campaign activities,” The Office of Congressional Ethics wrote in its report.
The inquiry into McMorris Rodgers focuses on her campaign for the office of Republican Conference Chair, the fourth-highest ranking position in the Republican leadership. Such races are usually backroom affairs, but McMorris Rodgers’ was a slick and full-bore effort, and she barely eked out a victory over Georgia Tea Party-backed lawmaker Tom Price.
Backed by the House leadership, McMorris Rodgers—at 44—was the first woman to hold the post and has often been put forward as a new face of the Republican Party, even giving the GOP’s response to the State of the Union earlier this year.
But according to the Ethics Committee report, a former top aide provided evidence showing that the congresswoman used official resources for campaign activities, paid a high-priced consultant from her campaign account to work on the race and combined official resources with campaign resources. Candidates are permitted to use their official resources and political funds, however, they are not permitted to commingle the different pools of money.
If such allegations are proven accurate, McMorris Rodgers “may have violated House rules, standards of conduct, and federal law,” the report states.
The aide, Todd Winer, currently works for Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, and told investigators that he wrote campaign speeches and did political work while on the clock for official business. He also claimed that McMorris Rodgers was aware of his work.
The report also reveals that the inquiry has now spiraled beyond a limited look at McMorris Rodgers’s leadership election to investigating whether or not she improperly used official staff to help with her 2012 re-election campaign. Among the areas of inquiry are allegations that McMorris Rodgers flew two congressional aides out to Washington State in order to help her prepare for a debate in her re-election bid, and that she brought a well-known D.C. consultant, Brett O’Donnell, into her congressional office to assist with official business there.
McMorris Rodgers’ office downplayed the seriousness of the Ethics Committee’s decision to extend the investigation, saying it was rendered necessary, in part, due to scheduling quirks around the committee’s work and the fact that key committee staff positions have been vacant.
“We recognize the institutional constraints the Ethics Committee is under and understand it was unable to conduct a full review during this 90 day period,” said McMorris Rodgers lawyer Elliot Berke in a statement. “We remain confident that, in time, the Committee will dismiss the complaint which was based on frivolous allegations from a single source—a former employee who then discredited himself by admitting to his own improper conduct.”
Ethics watchdogs however were not so certain. The committee had the opportunity to dismiss the allegations, and chose not to.
“It is obviously not good when you have somebody in leadership being investigated by the House Ethics Committee,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Once they begin investigating and talking to people and going through records, you have no idea what is going to come out.
“The jury is still out,” added Sloan. “The fact that the investigation is ongoing and that somebody has provided apparent evidence of wrongdoing suggests that there could be a problem.”
Separately, the ethics panel also said it will not appoint a special panel to investigate Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. The first term lawmaker is accused of violating House rules by continuing to work for the plumbing business that he and his wife own. Mullin’s investigation, however, is likewise ongoing.