Could an Obscure Ethics Rule Endanger Republican Star Cathy McMorris Rodgers?

A top ranking congresswoman is being probed for something so minor even government watchdogs are asking why.

It was in many way as small-bore a matter as members of Congress face: A campaign for a House leadership position, one that gets decided almost entirely in the back rooms. Not only are those kinds of elections most often foregone conclusions, with the winner decided long before any hands go up, but, in this case, it was not even a race for one of the top jobs in the House like speaker, majority leader, or whip, but rather for Republican Conference Chairman, the fourth-ranking member in the body.

But on the other hand, the 2012 contest between Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Tom Price was about the future of the Republican Party. After a disappointing November, the party was torn. Was it time to retrench to Tea Party-infused conservatism, or was it time to show a more moderate, female face to a rapidly changing electorate? Party leaders backed McMorris Rodgers; the conservative rank-and-file supported Price. Price was higher ranking, and considered next in line; McMorris Rodgers broke with the usual protocol for congressional elections by making her case, publicly and in the media, about why she should be chosen.

In the end, McMorris Rodgers ultimately won by the slimmest of margins.

But now the House Ethics Committee is looking into whether or not the congresswoman, considered such a rising star of the GOP that she was asked to give the response to the State of the Union address last month broke Congressional rules in the process.

Although House leadership races are often under-the-radar affairs, McMorris Rodgers’s effort included a slick packet mailed to members’ homes featuring headlines about the congresswoman from conservative news outlets like Human Events and Red State. It detailed how much money McMorris Rodgers had raised for her fellow Republicans, how often she had campaigned for others (“Cathy was on the ground in 22 states and 51 districts”) and her media appearances (“4 Sunday Shows. 27 National Op-eds. 53 Cable Appearances.”)

At issue is whether or not McMorris Rodgers combined personal campaign resources with official House resources in mounting her campaign. According to House rules, it is possible to use either, but not possible to use both when paying for a specific leadership campaign event. “When a particular activity related to a leadership race is supported with campaign resources, no official House resources may be devoted to that activity except to the extent noted above,” the House ethics manual states.

But while Price’s effort was entirely performed by his House office, McMorris Rodgers’ brought in Stan Shore and Dawn Sugasa, two high-priced consultants from her home state of Washington, as well as Brett O’Donnell, a former top aide to Michele Bachmann’s and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. Campaign finance reports indicate that the aides were paid tens of thousands of dollars around the time of the leadership election. It is unclear precisely what the operatives were paid for, although McMorris Rodgers faced only token opposition in her re-election campaign in her home district of Eastern Washington.

When reached for comment last month, O’Donnell would only say “I am not going to talk about any ongoing things.” Shore confirmed that he was involved in the leadership campaign, travelling back and forth between Washington State and Washington, D.C., and declined to answer further questions. Sagusa did not return multiple phone calls.

McMorris Rodgers’ staff insist that there is no wrongdoing, and have provided emails sent to the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Committee on House Administration during the leadership race that show that office attempting to insure its compliance with the rules.

“As has become an unfortunate rite of passage for many Members of Congress, the OCE regularly refers matters to the House Ethics Committee for further review,” said McMorris Rodgers lawyer Eliot Berke in a statement. “Such reviews are virtually automatic, and as the Committee always points out, does not indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee. The Congresswoman and her office cooperated fully with the OCE during its inquiry and have already begun assisting the Committee with its review. We are confident that the Committee will ultimately find that the allegations were baseless and that her office always followed all laws, rules and standards of conduct.”

McMorris Rodgers’ office is pinning the controversy on a former employee, Todd Winer, who they say was passed over for a job as her spokesman, after, among other infractions, floating the congresswoman to the press as a potential vice-presidential pick for Mitt Romney even as she was laying the groundwork for her leadership race. A person familiar with the situation said that Winer, who now works for Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, threatened to derail McMorris Rodgers’s career and those of her aides after his employment with her ended. Her office says that he pushed the story of apparent misuse of funds to a half-dozen media outlets before the Office of Congressional Ethics recommended the Ethics Committee conduct a probe into the case.

The whole affair meanwhile has mystified longtime Hill insiders and ethics watchdogs. It if is, after all, merely a disgruntled employee attempting to exact revenge, it is unlikely that the matter would have progressed as far as it has. One senior Republican aide close the leadership race wondered if it was simply a result of sloppiness on the part of McMorris Rodgers’s office.

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“Anybody can launch an allegation. It is the passage of that allegation to the Ethics Committee that gives it a little more credibility,” said Illona Nickels, author of Why Congress Matters and a Congressional expert. Still, she added, “I preach caution. [Ethics investigations] have often been used to smear a political opponent or soften them up politically.”

The specific rule for which McMorris Rodgers is accused of violating is considered so minor—not comingling campaign and Congressional funds, which is legal under the guidelines, but doing so for a specific event—that it has led some on Capitol Hill to wonder if the probe is likely to grow.

“It is already surprising that it has reached the level it has,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, considering the supposed violation and that McMorris Rodgers’ office apparently tried to clear most of their activities with the Office of Congressional Ethics. “It could have just started out being this, but once an investigation begins you really don’t know what you will find.”