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Ryan 'Made Clear' That Lawmakers Shouldn't 'Interfere' with Ethics Investigations

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — After a Monday vote by the House Republican Conference to dilute the powers of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said today that he has “made clear to the new chair of the House Ethics Committee that it is not to interfere with the office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job.”

Ryan did not mention his vote on Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) closed-door amendment to the House Rules package, though he and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reportedly argued against the measure that passed in the caucus 119-74.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is being moved under the oversight of the Ethics Committee and renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, Goodlatte’s office said in a summary. Permission would be needed from the Ethics Committee members to refer cases of criminal wrongdoing to law enforcement. The amendment also “bars the consideration of anonymous complaints” and “provides protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities” about investigations.

Goodlatte argued that the amendment “improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”

Ryan said he wanted to “make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress.”

“The office will continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board with ultimate decision-making authority. The office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently. And the outside board will still decide whether or not evidence exists to warrant a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee,” Ryan said. “With the amendment adopted last night, the bipartisan, evenly-divided House Ethics Committee will now have oversight of the complaints office.”

“But the office is not controlled by the committee, and I expect that oversight authority to be exercised solely to ensure the office is properly following its rules and laws, just as any government entity should,” he added. “…All members of Congress are required to earn the public’s trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people.”

House Republicans were holding a meeting before noon, where it was expected that some in the caucus may try to dial back the ethics changes.

President-elect Trump questioned the timing of the caucus move in a pair of tweets this morning”

Goodlatte defended his amendment in an op-ed today in The Hill, saying the changes in the OCE “ensure the rights of the accused are protected throughout the investigation and not subject to litigation by the media.”

“This provision does not mean that the Committee on Ethics will 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 will be reviewed in the context of a fellow investigative body,” he said.

On barring anonymous tipsters, Goodlatte wrote that “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, and costs people their jobs,” he said. “And when the anonymous complaint is found to be frivolous none of that is returned.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said Dems were “completely blindsided” by the “absolutely ridiculous” GOP caucus vote.

“I mean, is there any American out there who thinks Congress is too ethical?” Moulton said on CNN this morning. “…It’s frightening. I guess what they have on their agenda might run into trouble with ethics. I don’t know what else could be the reason.”

“You know, the good news on things like this is that there are Republicans who oppose it,” the congressman added. “I mean, even Speaker Paul Ryan opposed this change. So, what Democrats have to do is find common ground with Republicans who are reasonable and thoughtful and are willing to stand up to crazy changes like this and things that Donald Trump wants to do that are harmful to the American people.”

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) mused that if Republicans “had campaigned on the idea that they’re going to end the Office of Congressional Ethics, what do you think the citizens of the United States would have done?”

“I guess the question, really, we have to ask ourselves is why is the environment in Washington now one that allows this sort of thing to take place? Have we seen the standards lowered this far that the Office of Congressional Ethics can be eliminated without a debate, and the rules package?” Kildee told CNN. “This is really incomprehensible.”

McCarthy told MSNBC this morning that he “didn’t think it was the right time to do it.”

“Yes, it is true that I opposed moving forward on this at this time. Because I thought it was something that both parties should take up at the same time,” the GOP leader said. “But this entity was created so the public could register a complaint against a congressional member. This entity was then supposed to investigate and then they move forward to the Ethics Committee with dismissal or to investigate further. All three of those things stay in place. All this does was make sure — it puts a timeline because people complain in the public that these investigations go on forever.”

McCarthy said he would vote for the rules package that contains the amendment today.