McMorris Rodgers Won’t Immediately Face Full Ethics Probe
Posted at 6:52 p.m. on March 24, 2014
The House Ethics Committee declined to broaden its probe of Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., but said it will continue reviewing allegations that she improperly co-mingled campaign and official funds, the panel announced Monday.
The committee’s announcement means it can empanel an investigative subcommittee at a later date if it sees fit, but faces no deadline by which to do so. At the same time, the committee for the first time released a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics detailing in full the allegations against the GOP leader, along with a rebuttal from her lawyer.
“There is substantial reason to believe that Representative McMorris Rodgers used congressional funds, staff, and office space for campaign activities,” “used a campaign media consultant to perform official duties” and “improperly combined congressional resources and campaign resources to produce a mailing and video for her leadership race,” the OCE report states.
The report also recommends subpoenaing two former McMorris Rodgers employees: Patrick Bell, a former Hill new media director whom the OCE report states declined to participate in the investigation, and outside consultant Brett O’Donnell, who the OCE states declined to certify that the information he handed over to them is complete and accurate.
Elliott Berke, the Congresswoman’s attorney, said in a statement that he is confident the allegations will be dismissed and blamed a disgruntled former employee for the charges.
“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,” Berke said. “Neither Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers nor any other staff members were aware of this conduct and countered all of the allegations with the facts: At no time did they improperly mix official and campaign resources.”
Berke denied most of the allegations, yet in at least one case during the probe, McMorris Rodgers did admit to holding a debate preparation session in her congressional office, which would appear to violate House ethics rules prohibiting congressional office space from being used for political purposes.
“Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers regrets that the conversation occurred at that location, conveyed that regret to the OCE during its inquiry and extends that regret to the [Ethics] Committee,” Berke wrote in a January letter to the committee, explaining that she held the session there because her “home was noisy with children.”
Yet Berke denied on her behalf other allegations that the OCE recommended the Ethics Committee investigate. In particular, the OCE found that McMorris Rodgers may have violated House rules governing campaign finance when her official staff engaged in campaign work on official time.
The OCE noted that Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former communications director, told investigators that he performed campaign activities, such as writing stump speeches, on official time, thereby breaking House rules mandating a strict separation between official and political duties and resources.
Berke, however, said McMorris Rodgers and her senior staff had no knowledge of Winer’s conduct, and in the January letter painted him as a disgruntled employee, who was unhappy because he was passed over for a more-senior role in the office. Berke said Winer was terminated because others in the office described his behavior as “dark and twisted” and said they were “concerned for their safety,” describing an incident during which he slammed his car door in the face of Chief of Staff Jeremy Deutch and used profanity in a restaurant.
Berke encouraged the Ethics Committee to further investigate Winer, who is now communications director to Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Winer did not respond to a request seeking comment.
The OCE also noted that on a few occasions, McMorris Rodgers’ press secretary, Riva Litman, said she traveled to Washington state for political purposes, yet the trip was paid for from official resources.
Berke, however, countered that Litman has misrecalled the trips, and upon further examination the trips were mostly for official events. Litman did also do political work, but Berke said that all happened on her free time, such as before official working hours and on lunch breaks, which is permissible.
The OCE report also questions McMorris Rodgers’ official staff travel to the Republican National Convention, where she spoke and served as ceremonial host. Staffers told the OCE that they traveled there on their own time and put in vacation and leave request forms, yet they did not present the forms to the OCE when asked. Berke said in the letter that the forms are not necessary, but that they were indeed filled out and may have been lost when McMorris Rodgers moved offices.
The OCE report also states that McMorris Rodgers may have improperly paid O’Donnell from both campaign and official coffers. Berke said O’Donnell was paid from both coffers because at times he was working in an official capacity and at others for the campaign.
Finally, as Roll Call previously reported, the OCE report notes there is reason to believe McMorris Rodgers improperly mixed campaign and political funds in a race to become conference chairwoman. Both official and campaign staff likely worked on a video and information packet highlighting her candidacy, the report states.
Berke, however, wrote in the letter that any work done by official staff was done on their own time as volunteers.