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First Leader Outlines History Of Congressional Ethics Office

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Office of Congressional Ethics will remain as is. That wouldn't be notable except that late last night House Republicans voted among themselves to strip the office of its independence and much of its power. Then early this afternoon, after outrage from Democrats and a tweet of disappointment from President-elect Donald Trump, they reversed that plan. The Office of Congressional Ethics is the body responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct against members of the House of Representatives. It's faced criticism from members of both parties since it was founded in 2008, not long after a series of ethics violations, including a corruption scandal around former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Leo Wise served as the first head of the office, which operates independently of Congress. He left in 2010. When I spoke to him earlier, Wise said that before the creation of the OCE, ethics investigations in the House were opaque.

LEO WISE: It was, you know, a time when the ethics process was really a black box where allegations about both Jack Abramoff and the members that ultimately - some of whom went to jail over their corrupt dealings with him - were being talked about in the press and in some case in the courts, but there was no sense of what was happening within the institution itself. And I think this was in part an effort to open that up and shine sunlight into it.

CORNISH: So there is a formal committee, the House Ethics Committee, that exists. How does investigation by this independent office work?

WISE: Sure. So there's a board that governs the office. And they have to take a vote to begin an investigation. And then the investigators present their findings to the board. And if there's enough evidence, the board will authorize the investigation to continue. And then if even more evidence is developed, the board can vote to refer the case to the House Ethics Committee to do whatever in their judgment is the best course for the House and for the member.

CORNISH: Does the House Ethics Committee tend to pick up those investigations where you leave off?

WISE: They don't. And I think that speaks volumes about why the OCE was needed.

CORNISH: So all the power comes in, I guess, the end of the process, which is making those records, those fact findings, public.

WISE: I think that's right. That's what brings to light what happened so that the public can know what their elected officials are doing or not doing.

CORNISH: The OCE, though, has been criticized for being overly aggressive. It investigates based on anonymous tips. And as you said, investigations are made public even if the accusations are ultimately dismissed. And then you have members who, you know, are saddled with legal fees or just don't win re-election even though they haven't been convicted of any kind of crime. I mean, what's your response to that?

WISE: Well, the - sort of the facts are the facts. The OCE doesn't decide if people broke the law. It collects the evidence and then it presents it, so...

CORNISH: But the implication is quite the cloud.

WISE: Well, you know, I think when members' conduct is exposed to the public and to their fellow lawmakers, you know, the consequences flow from the conduct. Whereas focusing on the fact the conduct is now known seems to me misplacing where the agency should be.

CORNISH: Why do you think this essentially independent ethics panel has had a target on its back ever since it was created, right? Like, Congress made it and then seemed to, like, regret it almost immediately.

WISE: I mean, I think that's a testament to the fact that it was effective. It did shine light on practices that were in some cases wrong, in some cases resulted in referrals for criminal enforcement actions. And that's not a popular thing. But it was never...

CORNISH: But why were they surprised by that, right? Like, isn't that kind of the whole point of creating it?

WISE: Well, that's a good question. We decided to do the job we were given and to follow the facts wherever they led. And at the end of the day, I think that that's precisely why the OCE has been targeted this way, because it wasn't just, you know, a place where ethics complaints went to die or a mail stop where people could vent their frustration and then that would be sort of tucked away on a shelf somewhere, never to see the light of day.

CORNISH: Leo Wise, former head of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Thank you for speaking with us.

WISE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.