Board releases Azerbaijan report that was blocked by House Ethics Committee

Ethics investigators in the House or Representatives are at odds with each other.(Photo: Michael Reynolds, EPA)

WASHINGTON — House ethics investigators have released their report on an improper congressional trip to Azerbaijan that the House Ethics Committee refused to release because it had asked the investigators to stand down.

"Respectful of the principles of transparency and accountability in the House ethics process, and with assurance that it will not prejudice any action by the Department of Justice, the OCE Board has voted to release the (report), including the Findings of Fact" that the Ethics Committee had withheld, OCE said in a statement on its website Wednesday. OCE also said it declined to cease its investigation because there was no evidence at the time of the request that the Ethics Committee had an investigation of its own in progress, which is a prerequisite for a stand-down order.

The release is part of an ongoing battle between the House Ethics Committee and the independent Office of Congressional Ethics that was created in 2008 to review and refer matters to the committee for further action. Since the OCE was created, their has been ongoing tension between the two ethics watchdogs over how their roles should complement each other. The Ethics Committee has regularly — and sometimes forcefully — rejected OCE's findings that lawmakers have misbehaved.


Lawmakers caught in battle between House ethics cops

In the Azerbaijan case, OCE and the Ethics Committee concluded that 10 members of Congress and more than two dozen staff members accepted a 2013 trip that was improperly paid for by foreign corporations. Both panels also concluded that the congressional travelers did nothing wrong;  they had no way to know that the non-profit groups that were inviting them to travel were not paying for the trip themselves. The travelers also had gotten the trips approved by the Ethics Committee in advance, as House rules require, and the committee did not detect the problems with the sponsoring organizations either.

But USA TODAY has reported that at the time the trip was approved, the Ethics Committee was not consistently enforcing its own regulations for travel approval.


House Ethics Committee let members slide on disclosure rules

The rules that created the OCE require the board to refer its findings to the Ethics Committee; the committee then has sole authority to determine punishment (if any) and has a timeline for releasing the OCE report. In the Azerbaijan case, however, the Ethics Committee directed OCE to stop its investigation and turn over its materials to the committee. OCE declined and continued to pursue its probe which it submitted to the Ethics Committee in May. The OCE investigation was nine separate reports, one on each lawmaker who traveled. A tenth Member of Congress on the trip is no longer in Congress. Shortly thereafter, one version of the report was leaked to the Washington Post — the first time an OCE report has been leaked prior to its official release.

When the committee released its findings on the Azerbaijan trip in July, it did not release the OCE report, claiming that it was not official, because the committee had asked OCE to stop. The committee called the OCE report just background material for the panel's own investigation. The committee claimed the leaked OCE had compromised its own investigation and led key witnesses to take the Fifth Amendment and decline to testify. That, the panel said, stopped it from determining who paid for the Azerbaijan trip.


Lawmakers cleared in Azerbaijan trip

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