Tension between two Congressional ethics bodies boiled over today in connection to an investigation of a California congressman.
The House Ethics committee announced that it had voted unanimously to dismiss a probe into whether Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) improperly took advantage of a tax break for Maryland homeowners.
But in its report on the case (posted below), the panel used unusually harsh language to slam the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which had itself voted unanimously to recommend that the Ethics committee — officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — continue the probe, and had found that Stark likely violated the law.
The Ethics committee, which is chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), charged that OCE “conducted an inadequate review, the result of which was to subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal allegations.” [Late Update: See below for OCE’s response]
OCE’s own report — which was included as an appendix to the Ethics committee report — found that Stark misrepresented information to the state of Maryland in applying for a tax break, worth thousands, on a waterfront home. In order to qualify for the tax break, homeowners must use the home address for voting and obtaining a drivers license, according to state law. Stark told the state that he voted in Maryland, but in fact votes in California and has a California drivers license. OCE also found that Stark had misled OCE investigators during an interview on the matter.
But the Ethics committee’s report puts the thrust of those findings into question. It concludes that Stark received no benefit from his mistake, because he corrected the error before Maryland ever adjudicated his application for a tax credit.
“The evidence clearly establishes that Representative Stark did not receive a tax credit as a result of filing for the credit,” the committee writes. “The evidence also establishes that he did not file a false application for the Maryland property tax credit.”
OCE was created as a quasi-independent ethics body in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, to address concerns that the Ethics committee was not pursuing investigations of House members with sufficient aggressiveness.
But the two bodies have clashed before, with each side accusing the other of overstepping its authority, in particular in connection to probes of Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).
The Ethics committee’s report, which includes OCE’s report as an appendix, is below:
Full Stark Report and Appendices
Late Update: OCE responds in a statement:
The OCE conducted a thorough and professional review and accurately reported the facts gathered in the course of its review. The document the Standards Committee is citing, in order to claim that the OCE ‘s review was inadequate, was never provided to the OCE by Representative Stark. In fact, according to the Anne Arundel County Finance Office, such documents are not even mailed to homeowners until the end of November 2009 — almost three months after the OCE review concluded.
Further, the OCE’s review concerned the following allegation, “Representative Stark’s conduct may have violated Maryland law and the Code of Ethics for Government Service if he misrepresented information on the Application for Homestead Credit Eligibility in order to prove eligibility.” Thus, the OCE review focused on what steps Representative Stark took or did not take to secure the credit not whether he was successful in securing the credit.
At no time did the OCE subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal allegations.