WASHINGTON - The House Ethics Committee said Monday it will not appoint a special panel to investigate allegations that Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-highest ranking House Republican, improperly combined campaign and official funds in a GOP leadership race and her re-election campaign.
The committee’s top two leaders, Reps. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said they will not formally drop the case against McMorris Rodgers, but will continue to review the matter under their own authority.
In practical terms, the decision means it is unlikely that McMorris Rodgers will face charges or sanctions.
The ethics office said if found “substantial evidence” that McMorris Rodgers improperly used her staff and her office to help her 2012 re-election campaign.
An attorney for the Eastern Washington Republican argued the allegations are from a disgruntled employee and aren’t believable.
The 32-page report, with some 200 pages of exhibits, accuses McMorris Rodgers’ staff of failing to take time off from their congressional duties to help her with campaign speeches, preparing for a campaign debate and working campaign events in 2012.
The Office of Congressional Ethics recommended the House Ethics Committee review allegations of a former staff member because “there is substantial reason to believe Rep. McMorris Rodgers used congressional funds, staff and office space for campaign activities … used a campaign consultant to perform official duties … improperly combined congressional resources and campaign resources to produce a mailing and video for her leadership race.”
In a point-by-point rebuttal, Elliot Berke, an attorney for McMorris Rodgers, defended her actions, criticized former press secretary Todd Winer who filed the complaint and insisted “we reject all conclusions reached by the Office of Congressional Ethics in its report.”
Other members of her congressional staff said they knew and obeyed House rules for separating government and campaign work, her attorneys said. The idea that Winer did not understand the distinction “defies credulity” Berke wrote in a 49-page response.
“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,” he said in a prepared statement.
But the committee’s investigation remains open and the Ethics Committee, which is considering Winer’s complaint, released the report which was unanimously adopted by the Office of Congressional Ethics Board last December. That report had remained confidential until Monday.
The House Ethics Manual prohibits the drafting of campaign press releases and speeches while congressional employees are on the clock. They are allowed to do some campaign work during lunch breaks and non-working hours.
At one point, McMorris Rodgers told investigators she used congressional staff to draft speeches and press releases because they know her better.
Current staff members said they followed that rule, although in interviews with investigators, they were sometimes unable to provide documentation that the campaign work was done on their own time.
For example, four members of her congressional staff traveled to Spokane in October 2012, when McMorris Rodgers had a televised debate with Democratic challenger Rich Cowan. The trip was classified as official congressional business, although schedules showed it had both campaign and congressional events. Press secretary Riva Litman said she had submitted a request for time off for the trip, but investigators said they could not find a record of it.
Berke said the ethics manual only recommends that staff record time spent doing campaign work but does not make it mandatory.
“The primary purpose for the travel was to conduct official business during that period,” he said. “That they engaged in campaign activity on behalf of the congresswoman does not negate that fact.”
Investigators also criticized McMorris Rodgers for holding a session to prepare for the debate at her congressional office. She told investigators later that she regretted having the meeting there, but held it there “because she knew her home would be noisy with her family.”
Winer was demoted in December 2012 and later left McMorris Rodgers’ staff, although he asked for a letter of recommendation from her, and she agreed to give him one. Eventually, he drafted a letter which she signed. He is now press secretary for Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Matt Kalish, a student in the University of Missouri Washington, D.C., Reporting Program, is a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review and contributed to this report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.