Saturday, November 22, 2014

Which Freshmen Will Wind Up With Ethics Violations? You Can Already Tell By Their Attitudes


New Jersey corruption: Norcross (D), Christie (R)

New Jersey politicians have a reputation. There's a transpartisan/transactional culture of corruption that permeates Garden State politics, exemplified by the cozy relationship between the country's most corrupt Governor, Republican Chris Christie, and the most venal and slimy batch of Democratic Machine bosses anywhere in America, particularly Brian Stack, Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross. Norcross just installed his younger brother, Donald, in an open congressional seat. And the sclerotic, out of touch Democratic party leadership in Congress gave Norcross-the-Younger a plumb seat on their caucus' Steering Committee. Aside from being installed as the next Congressman from Camden, Cherry Hill and the Jersey suburbs east of Philly, Donald Norcross is filling in the last days of the unexpired term of Rob Andrews-- who retired as part of a deal to avoid a criminal investigation into campaign finance fraud charges. Though he sits in a D+13 district Obama won with 66% in 2012, Norcross' first vote was to join the Republicans to vote for the Keystone XL Pipeline. IT's going to be a long, ugly tenure.

The Norcross name defines grotesque corruption in South Jersey. Like all the other freshmen, he was required to take an ethics training course as part of his freshmen orientation last week. Fear not; he's immune. And so are most of the Republican freshmen, many of whom went on the record claiming there's no reason to force them into ethics training. Like Norcross, right-wing fanatic Tom Emmer (R-MN) is replacing a scandal-plagued crook, Michele Bachmann, who escaped a serious investigation by prematurely retiring.
“Pay for everything yourself, don’t take any gifts, and-- if you have a question about either of those two rules-- here’s the people you call,” Emmer quipped Tuesday morning, resting up in the basement of the Capitol Hill Club after a chilly photo shoot on the East Front Capitol steps with his fellow freshmen. “It’s that basic.”

Emmer and three other incoming members preparing to replace House lawmakers leaving Washington with open ethics reviews, all seemed to feel confident they were well-equipped to navigate Congress within the bounds of the 675 pages of rules governing the House, after a three-hour ethics briefing on the first day of the second week of orientation.

The session, featuring staff from the House Ethics Committee, the Office of Compliance and the Office of House Employment Counsel was helpful, according to Emmer, but nothing new. With nearly a decade of city council service, six years in the Minnesota House and a career as a lobbyist and lawyer under his belt, the 53-year-old said he is familiar with “conflicts of interest” and ethics policies.

Republican Glenn Grothman told CQ Roll Call, “Wisconsin ethics laws are even stricter than these,” as he exited the briefing. After more than two decades in state-level lawmaking, Grothman will replace retiring Rep. Tom Petri, who asked the House Ethics Committee to review his actions, amid questions about his relationship with defense contractors headquartered in his district that may have benefitted Petri’s financial interests.

The lesson delivered in the Capitol Visitor Center basement could be the only training incoming members receive on what might land them at the center of an ethics probe.

Although all new staffers must receive ethics training within 60 days of their start date, and get refreshed on ethics each year, there is no mandate for House lawmakers to undergo annual ethics training.

Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline and Virginia Republican Scott Rigell, both elected to the House in 2010, are teaming up to request a rule change that would require all lawmakers to undergo an annual class on ethics in the 114th Congress. In an interview, Cicilline described a letter the bipartisan duo will send to leadership to make their case. Cicilline said undergoing annual training is “not only beneficial to members,” but also to the reputation of the institution.

In 2007, the Senate mandated training for all senators and staff. Senior staff must complete an additional hour of ethics training once per Congress. Employees who work on Capitol Hill must attend a live briefing, while district staff based in other cities can fulfill ethics training online.

“My takeaway would be there’s a very complex problem of trying to maintain ethics in Congress,” said Republican Brian Babin, a Texas dentist who replaces GOP firebrand Steve Stockman in January. The congressman and three members of his staff were recently subpoenaed by a federal court in the District of Columbia for what appears to be a grand jury investigation into Stockman’s alleged flouting of campaign finance law.

Babin said that after the general overview, he was sure he would have discussions and questions, probably related to gifts and travel. “If there’s any area where it doesn’t look like it’s cut and dry,” he said he will seek advice. He will also hire a team of veteran Capitol Hill staffers who know how to abide by all the rules.

...Those who want to mandate ethics training claim the rules are not only complicated, but evolve over time. For example, Ciccilline pointed out that the House has “very specific limitations on how your name can be used” in coordination with nonprofit events. There are also complex, perhaps murky rules when it comes to social media. Incoming members might not realize their Facebook pages, or the foreign trips they are planning, could be subject to ethics review.

“New members are obviously developing a whole set of procedures for their offices, building staff, receiving a lot of information,” Cicilline said. He clarified that he’s not “pre-judging” what his new colleagues might do, but believes all members would benefit. A bill he introduced with the same intent has support from 52 Democrats and six Republicans.

None of the freshmen of the 114th Congress expressed explicit support for mandatory House ethics training, though Zeldin indicated he might be open to learning more about the proposal. Emmer is opposed.

“The idea that you would make it mandatory, I mean … if you can read, if you are capable of being here, doing the work to become a representative, I think you’re capable of doing the homework and understanding the rules,” he said.
And what, exactly, does that say about his predecessor? And, by the way, not every politician from New Jersey is part of the Christie/Norcross system of corruption. Former state Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman is a freshman now too. She's an enthusiastic proponent of reform and honesty in government. "I support," she told me this morning, "mandatory ethics training for incoming members, or members who have never received it. And then, I support mandatory training on changes and updates, annually, if there are any."

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