Bob Goodlatte replies about the Ethics Office

Dear Mr. Gavaler:

Thank you for contacting me about the need for strong ethics in government, as well as my recent amendment to strengthen the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).  We agree the OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and my amendment would have done nothing to impede their work or lessen the high ethical standards to which all Members of Congress should be held.  While my amendment was supported by a majority of the House Republican Conference, it was ultimately not considered by the full U.S. House of Representatives and no changes to OCE were made.

The word ethics carries a heavy weight in the halls of Congress, and with good reason. The men and women elected to represent the American people should be held to the highest standards. That’s something with which I wholeheartedly agree. Nearly a decade ago several Members of Congress were involved in major ethics scandals, some of which resulted in those Members serving prison time. While the legal system dealt with their actions in an appropriate manner, the House looked inward at its own practices to ensure that ethical challenges were being handled appropriately, in line with the Constitution, and in a manner that reflected the best intentions of our elected representatives to serve their constituents.

Out of this review came the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE.  This nonpartisan, independent office was founded partially to add an additional layer of review over Members and staff of the House of Representatives, but primarily to serve as a receiving forum for complaints from members of the public.  As a former member of the House Committee on Ethics, and the acting Chairman of the Committee for one investigation, I know how important a robust investigative body can be to uphold the high standards expected of Congress by the American public.

Since the OCE was first created, it has gone through some growing pains, and the House has now had nearly a decade of results to make necessary improvements that will strengthen the OCE and provide important constitutional protections for those being investigated.

An amendment I offered to the Rules package would have built upon and strengthened the existing OCE by maintaining its primary area of focus – accepting and reviewing complaints from the public – while providing additional due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.  I believe all American citizens deserve the due process rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.  The amendment also would have changed the name of the OCE to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review to avoid confusion with the House Committee on Ethics and more accurately reflect its mission.

Feedback from Members and staff having gone through review by the OCE has been that those under investigation need increased protection of their due process rights, greater access to basic evidentiary standards, and a process that does not discriminate against them for invoking those rights. The amendment sought to strengthen each of these needs while maintaining the basic core of OCE’s functions.  The past eight years have shown that some of the cases reviewed by OCE and recommended to the House Ethics Committee for action were entirely frivolous and were dismissed completely by Ethics.  Some of these include claims of sexual harassment by a Member against his staff, conflicts of interest regarding congressional witness testimony, and intimidation of a federal employee.  All these claims harmed the reputations of the accused, cost them thousands in legal fees, and were all dismissed without any findings of guilt.

While these cases are examples of some of the issues OCE has had during its tenure, my amendment would have prevented the reputational harm brought against the Members and staff, while still allowing these reviews to be conducted by OCE.  To be very clear, the office would have maintained its independence and mission to review complaints against Members and staff from the public, just in a private, confidential setting.

For decades the House Ethics Committee, not the OCE, has worked in a bipartisan manner to investigate alleged abuses by Members and staff.  Their track record of confidentiality, of operating in a “hermetically sealed chamber,” is the gold standard for an investigative body. The OCE should be required to do the same to protect the accused’s rights and preserve the integrity of the investigation. Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the investigations, the amendment provided strong protections against any disclosures to the media or other government entities, and required that any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the Members. These provisions taken together would have ensured the rights of the accused, like those of the accuser, were protected throughout the investigation and not subject to litigation by the media, as well as ensured that any criminal matters were properly referred to law enforcement agencies by Members of Congress, not the unelected staff of OCE. Crimes ought to be treated as crimes and handled by law enforcement.

Another of the basic tenets of American law is that the accused have the right to confront their accuser in a court of law.  Today the OCE is able to accept anonymous complaints, meaning literally anyone from anywhere in the world can send something through a website and potentially disparage the reputation of a Member without a basis in fact. Responding to an anonymous accusation drags good people’s names through the mud, costs the accused tens of thousands of dollars or more, and costs people their jobs. And when the anonymous complaint is found to be frivolous, as it very often is, none of that is returned. This amendment would have required OCE to create rules that disallow anonymous complaints, something that would prevent frivolous complaints and allow the OCE to focus their time and energy on legitimate complaints.

An important principle of effective governance is that all parts of the federal government, whether found in the legislative, executive, or judicial branch, should be subject to proper oversight. That is why my amendment would have ensured that OCE be subject to oversight by the Committee on Ethics. This provision did not mean the Committee on Ethics would be able to dictate outcomes or impede a properly conducted investigation, but rather that their budget, their rules and procedures, and their impact on House operations would be reviewed in the context of a fellow investigative body.  It should also be clear that the House Ethics Committee was not addressed in the amendment, and remains a bipartisan, evenly divided committee designed specifically to investigate alleged Member and staff impropriety.

The bottom line is that Congress, and I personally, want the American public to have a venue to make complaints against Members of the House that works.  This venue needs to protect the rights of the accuser and the accused, and it needs to remain confidential throughout the investigative process, like any other investigation. The amendment I offered would have strengthened the mission of the OCE, restored constitutional due process rights to the accused, and ensured that the Office of Congressional Ethics remains a strong and independent review board throughout the 115th Congress.

As I stated previously, my amendment was ultimately not a part of the House Rules package adopted by the House of Representatives.  As such, no changes were made to the Office of Congressional Ethics.

I appreciate you taking the time to share your views with me. I believe it is important to keep an open line of communication so I can best serve the interests of Virginia’s 6th District. I hope you will continue to be in touch as the 115th Congress continues to debate issues of importance to the United States.

Again, thank you for the benefit of your comments. Feel free to contact me whenever I may be of assistance.

Sincerely,

Bob Goodlatte
Member of Congress

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Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University where he teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury forthcoming 2017).

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