From today’s Sentinel:
A ethics probe that included Rep. Todd Tiahrt, and was believed to be resolved by the House Ethics Committee, resurfaced Thursday, as the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) voted unanimously to forward evidence of possible wrongdoing to the Department of Justice.
“The evidence pertains to a factual finding by the OCE Board that certain persons and companies saw their campaign donations as affecting decisions about earmarks,” the OCE explained in a release.
Tiahrt, along with six other congressmen, including the late Rep. John Murtha, were investigated by OCE in 2009 due to their relations with The PMA Group, a lobbying firm, and its clients. PMA shut down after a federal criminal investigation involving trading earmarks for campaign contributions from the group’s clients.
Tiahrt was singled out in a 306-page report by OCE on congressional dealings with PMA for his refusal to be interviewed by OCE investigators – a refusal that also extended to his staff. Tiahrt did, however, turn over all documents relating to appropriations and fund-raising. Regarding Tiahrt’s refusal, the report states in a footnote that Tiahrt submitted a statement under oath where he “flatly denied all of OCE’s allegations.”
The office found Tiahrt’s refusal for him or his staff to be interviewed to be the only probable cause for further investigation by the House Ethics Committee, and stopped short of making an outright accusation. However, upon conducting its own investigation, the ethics committee voted unanimously to exonerate all seven members.
OCE, a federal agency, was created in 2008 as an independent congressional ethics watchdog. It differs from the House Ethics Committee as the members of its board are private citizens and cannot be members of Congress, or employees of the federal government. The House Ethics Committee is made up of members of Congress.
A report released by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct also exonerated the members under investigation.
“First, the Standards Committee found no evidence that members or their official staff considered campaign contributions when requesting earmarks,” the report explained. “The Standards Committee further found no evidence that members or their official staff were directly or indirectly engaged in seeking contributions in return for earmarks. Rather, the evidence showed that earmarks are evaluated based upon criteria independent of campaign contributions, such as the number of jobs created in the member’s district, or the value to the taxpayer or the U.S. Military, and without members or their official staff linking, or being aware that companies may have intended to link, contributions with earmarks.”
Tiahrt refused to be interviewed because he had fundamental problems with how OCE conducted its business.
“(OCE) refused to accept the documents we provided to them and they weren’t interested in conducting a professional review,” said Tiahrt’s Congressional Communications Director Sam Sackett.
The OCE report did mention it had refused to accept certain documents from Tiahrt.
“Representative Tiahrt’s counsel submitted a written memorandum that she prepared and represented was an outline for his process for vetting and reviewing appropriations requests. However, the board notes that this attorney has no personal knowledge of the earmarks under review and therefore, the submitted outline is not considered evidence,” explained the report.
Sackett also pointed out that OCE requested the interview on the final day of its investigation, after Tiahrt’s office had previously cooperated with OCE, and threatened to release a bad report if Tiahrt didn’t cooperate.
“OCE made good on its promise to punish Rep. Tiahrt if he didn’t consent to an interview in the manner they requested,” Sackett said.
Evidence complied in the OCE report also mentioned Tiahrt Senior Defense Appropriations Aide Jim Richardson, who was seen at several Tiahrt fund-raisers also attended by industries seeking earmarks from Tiahrt, including Teledyne Technologies. OCE was unable to interview Richardson to determine if he discussed earmarks with contributors. However, a Teledyne executive interviewed by OCE who was present at the fund-raisers denied asking for, or accepting, favors for appropriations.
“Anyone, including staff in their free time, is free to participate in the Congressman’s re-election activities,” Sackett said.
Tiahrt did author three earmark requests for PMA clients – a $1 million earmark for Boeing and two earmarks totaling $2.4 million for a company called Aeroflex. However, OCE was unable to establish a relation between these earmarks and contributions to Tiahrt’s campaign or leadership PAC.
PMA clients contributed $8,950 to Tiahrt’s campaign. Teledyne’s PAC contributed $4,000 in 2008, but did not receive an earmark from Tiahrt, although he did support Teledyne’s position on a defense appropriation, as was stated in an internal Teledyne PAC fund request.
OCE would not release any further evidence it forwarded to the Department of Justice, despite being asked by Rep. Jeff Flake and Rep. Paul Hodes.
“The OCE Board is committed to keeping members and the public informed about its work. However, under the circumstances of this case and the risk of prejudice to any pending criminal investigation, among other concerns, the board was unable to grant their request,” explained OCE in a statement.
Tiahrt hopes that if the Department of Justice conducts an investigation, any illegal activities will be prosecuted accordingly.
“Congressman Tiahrt was fully exonerated last winter, and his review has been closed,” Sackett said. “We hope that anyone else who may be looked at will be held accountable for any wrongdoing and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”