January 3, 2017

Report: Pearce among those who sought to weaken independent ethics office

Congressman Steve Pearce speaking at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2011. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore cc

Rep. Steve Pearce was one of the Republican members of Congress who voted to gut the independent office looking into ethics, according to a news report.

The vote came during a closed-door meeting by Republicans and became public Monday. After a major public outcry, Republican lawmakers changed course Tuesday and announced they scrapped plans to remove the functions from Office of Congressional Ethics.

Politico reported that Pearce was one of those who supported removing many key functions of the independent OCE, including its ability to refer allegations to law enforcement. The now-dead proposal sought to send give more power to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of members of Congress.

From Politico:

Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) also vocally supported the amendment. They or their staff had come under OCE’s microscope.

A spokesman for Pearce said he had not spoken with the congressman about his vote.

“What is known, he has stated publicly his concerns over OCE’s process and has sought amendments in previous years that would maintain a high level of ethics in the House and ensure an individual’s protections under the Constitution,” Todd Willens told NM Political Report in an email.

In the past, Pearce has pushed to defund the OCE. The office had a budget of around $1 million.

Pearce had an issue with OCE after the office looked into allegations against one of his junior staffers. Those charges were eventually dropped.

“You can imagine, you’re just a junior staffer and you’re suddenly called up by people saying you’ve got to start turning over everything … and you can’t use a lawyer and then if you do, you wonder how you’re going to pay for it,” Pearce said to Roll Call in 2015 when he sought to add new language to the rules governing OCE. “That’s just not the position staffers of this Congress should be put in.”

At the time, Pearce sought to add language to rules governing OCE and HEC that the entities “may not take any action that would deny any person any right or protection provided under the Constitution of the United States.”

Willens said that despite the rule change, “The House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and OCE will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress” and that “The OCE will continue to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat representing the Albuquerque area, had also come under investigation by the OCE last year  because of a trip to Azerbaijan that was secretly paid for by an oil company run by the country.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics concluded, as reported by the news media, that Rep. Lujan Grisham was led to believe the travel was sponsored by a non-profit organization, and not any other source. Rep. Lujan Grisham acted in good faith as she relied on the approval by House Ethics Committee,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told NM Political Report at the time.

The OCE was created in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, where the lobbyist overbilled Native American casino interests by millions of dollars. U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, pleaded guilty to charges related to the Abramoff scandal.

Democrats created the OPCE in 2008, when they were in control of the House.