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Cathy McMorris Rodgers subject of ethics complaint

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., rehearses the Republican response to the State of the Union. (Associated Press)
Matt Kalish Correspondent

Just a week after delivering the Republican Party response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is under fire for alleged spending improprieties.

Aides to the Spokane congresswoman, the fourth-ranking House Republican, said Thursday the ethics complaint involves an accusation that McMorris Rodgers improperly mingled taxpayer money and campaign funds during her 2012 bid for House leadership. The Office of Congressional Ethics has referred the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which hasn’t decided whether to hold hearings.

The complaint, according to sources familiar with the allegations, was filed by Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former communications director. Winer was fired from the congresswoman’s office in 2012 before taking a job with U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.

Multiple calls to Winer weren’t returned Thursday.

A spokesman for McMorris Rodgers said the five-term representative and her staff will be working with the committee on the issue.

“We are confident that every activity was compliant with all federal laws, House rules, and Standards of Conduct,” said Nate Hodson. “We are fully cooperating and look forward to seeing this matter dismissed.”

The complaint was filed to the Office of Congressional Ethics in late December. After looking at the complaint for a month, the office referred the issue to the full House Ethics Committee.

McMorris Rodgers’ attorney, Elliot Berke, described the referral to the ethics committee as a rite of passage for many members of the House leadership.

“Such reviews are virtually automatic, and as the committee always points out, does not indicate that any violation has occurred or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee,” said Berke. “We are confident that the committee will ultimately find that the allegations were baseless.”

The complaint alleges McMorris Rodgers mixed campaign and taxpayer dollars when running to be chair of the House Republican Caucus in late 2012.

According to the House Ethics Manual, lawmakers can use taxpayer-funded resources, like letterhead and congressional staff, when running for leadership positions within the House only after consulting with the ethics committee and the House Administration Committee.

Aides said they consulted multiple times with both committees and no concerns were raised. It’s unclear how much money or staff resources are alleged to have been improperly mingled.

Meredith McGhee from the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization that works on campaign finance issues, said there are areas where the law is murky about mixing campaign and taxpayer resources, and it’s hard to tell when someone is acting on their own time or for Congress.

Author Norm Ornstein, who’s written several books on Congress and campaign finance, said it is possible the ethics committee will just issue a letter of reprimand.

A letter of reprimand, according to Ornstein, is a slap on the wrist. It carries no weight.

McMorris Rodgers is the second member of the House GOP leadership to be accused of ethics violations recently. Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., was cleared by the ethics committee in November of improperly accepting a gift when he traveled to Taiwan in 2011.

Ornstein said being on the national stage, which McMorris Rodgers now is on, comes with problems like the new allegations.

“The athletes hit harder at this level,” Ornstein said.

The ethics committee will announce its plans on the allegations by March 24.