House ethics panel clears pair of GOP lawmakers
WASHINGTON — The House ethics committee said on 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.
Separately, the ethics panel said it will not appoint a special panel to investigate Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. Mullin was alleged to have improperly received outside income totaling $600,000 last year from a weekly radio talk show and family-owned plumbing business. Both cases were forwarded to the ethics committee's attention by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which reviews complaints against House members.
The ethics office said it found “substantial reason to believe” the allegations in both cases.
McMorris Rodgers, 44, of Washington state, is the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House. She delivered the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union address in January.
Her attorney, Elliot Berke, said the complaint against her was based on “frivolous allegations from a single source — a former employee who then discredited himself by admitting to his own improper conduct.”
The onetime employee was Todd Winer, a former spokesman for McMorris Rodgers who told the ethics office that he wrote campaign speeches for her on his work computer during business hours, and that he and other staffers frequently wrote news releases and did other work for the campaign on government time.
But Berke said other staffers contradicted Winer, telling investigators that debate prep and other campaign work was done on a voluntary basis and on their own time. On one occasion, McMorris Rodgers recalled that some “conversation” about a debate was held in her Capitol Hill office “because she knew her home was noisy with her young children,” Berke said.
“Neither Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers nor any other staff members were aware of” Winer's actions, Berke said. “At no time did they improperly mix official and campaign resources.”
Berke said he is confident the ethics panel ultimately will dismiss the complaint.
Winer, in lengthy testimony to the ethics office, said he and several staffers attended a debate prep session at the congresswoman's office in the Rayburn building on a weekday in October 2012, in apparent violation of House rules. Staffers also traveled to a debate in Spokane, Wash., later that month and attended other campaign events over several days, all on official time, Winer said. Such actions would violate House rules that require campaign activities be separated from official duties.
Winer, who now serves as spokesman for Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, did not return a telephone call or email Monday.
The report by the ethics office was forwarded to the House Ethics panel in December. The committee made it public Monday.
Winer told investigators that he was uncomfortable performing campaign work on staff time, but was told by the congresswoman's former chief of staff, Jeremy Deutsch, that he “wanted to keep down costs” for the campaign so McMorris Rodgers would have more money to contribute to other GOP candidates and build support for her race for GOP leadership. McMorris won election as GOP Conference chairwoman in 2012.
The report also says that McMorris paid a campaign consultant with official funds, a violation of House rules.