The Capitol

WASHINGTON, DC (RollCall)– Details of a congressional ethics case that has been referred to the Justice Department surfaced online Wednesday, exposing the nine lawmakers involved to fresh criticism.

On July 31, the House Ethics Committee announced it was closing a review of nine lawmakers who took an all-expenses-paid trip to Azerbaijan that might have been secretly funded by the country’s state-owned oil company. The panel cleared lawmakers of wrongdoing and, in an unprecedented step, stopped short of releasing the findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics’s probe into the matter.

But the OCE’s seven-member board voted on Sept. 25 to disclose the findings independently, and it posted a series of reports to its website Wednesday morning.

“Respectful of the principles of transparency and accountability in the House ethics process, and with assurance that it will not prejudice any action by the Department of Justice, the OCE Board has voted to release the nine referrals, including the Findings of Fact, as permitted by section 1(f)(1)(B) of House Resolution 895,” the office stated in a release that suggests the committee tried to quash its investigation.

The release comes about five months after The Washington Post reported on the OCE’s findings — a leak the Ethics Committee blasted for making its job harder.

“Such an unauthorized release may have violated House Rules and other standards of conduct,” House Ethics Chairman Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., said in a joint statement on June 22. “Moreover, the unauthorized disclosure of the materials has directly impacted the Committee’s investigation, which began well before OCE transmitted the materials to the Committee.”

When members of the Ethics Committee voted a few weeks later, they unanimously agreed to release one-page summaries from the OCE of the allegations involving Democratic Reps. Yvette D. Clarke of New York, Danny K. Davis of Illinois, Rubén Hinojosa of Texas, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Gregory W. Meeks of New York, plus Republican Reps. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Ted Poe of Texas.

The Ethics Committee decided not to release other materials, its report stated, because those contain evidence of possible criminal misconduct, and disclosure could interfere with a potential DOJ investigation. The committee also noted the OCE’s ultimate “findings” were considered “supporting documents” because they arrived after the committee had requested the OCE cease and refer its investigation.

But the OCE explained Wednesday why it rejected the committee’s request.

“Because no such investigation had been begun by the Committee, the OCE Board declined to stop its investigations,” according to the statement.

Watchdogs were troubled by the ethics panel’s earlier decision not to release the findings, suggesting a cover-up. In a letter to lawmakers, they warned the situation “could establish a dangerous precedent” for future investigations.

Since the agency’s 2009 formation, one other case has been released pursuant to such a vote.

On March 29, 2010, the OCE released a report citing evidence that Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican who resigned from the House while under investigation to run for Georgia governor, had improperly used his position to benefit his family’s auto salvage business. Deal resigned from the House hours before the ethics committee would have released the report, removing himself from the committee’s jurisdiction.

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