It would be wrong to call the House ethics committee incompetent. Because, really, it ably strives to make itself as irrelevant and impotent as possible.And links to an article (sub. req.) at The Hill that begins like this:
The House ethics committee has declared that an earmark requested by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) to build a commuter transit center near a handful of properties he owns would not be an impermissible financial conflict because any benefit to Calvert would be shared by other similarly situated landowners.
Well, that's not exactly what they said, but more on that later. The letter to Calvert can be found here, by the way.
As much as I have the greatest respect for the Talkingpointsmemo group of websites, I think they may have missed the mark on this one as the facts tell (at the very least) a different tale.
And since, as it turns out, my own representative, Congressman Mike Doyle, is actually on the House Ethics Committee, I decided to drop him an e-mail for a chat on the matter. And though I'm just a poor wayfaring blogger, he got back in contact straightened out a few things.
First thing he said was the reporting was "far off base" and quickly added that the fact that Calvert went to the ethics committee with this earmark in the first place was due to the transparency reforms implemented by the new Democratic leadership when they took control of the House in January, 2007.
From the Ethics Committee website:
The House Rules for the 110th Congress changed the Code of Official Conduct regarding earmarks. This provision requires that a Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner who requests an earmark or a limited tax or tariff benefit to provide certain information regarding the request and its purpose to the committee of jurisdiction. An Advisory Memorandum providing guidance in this matter was released on March 27, 2007.By the way, here's the "Advisory Memorandum" mentioned above.
According to Doyle, Calvert would not have had to approach the ethics committee in the 109th Congress and it would not have been as clear who would have popped an earmark like that into a budget prior to these recent Democratic reforms. It just never would have been this out in the open previously.
In fact, Doyle said, Calvert went to the committee to cover his ass about that earmark because of the transparency reforms.
Doyle clarified a few other things as well. The letter to Calvert was actually from the committee counsel, not from the ethics committee itself as the matter was never actually before the committee itself. The letter was a response to an inquiry by Calvert. He added that these sorts of inquiries are now "routine" and that there are probably 100 advisory requests pending "even as we speak."
Let's get on to specifics. TPMMucker Paul Keil writes that Calvert's properties were "in walking distance" to the proposed transit center. Well if you take a look at the letter to Calvert, you get the actual distances that Keil regards as "walking distance." There's one property a tenth of a mile away. Ok that's certainly walking distance.
But the next closest properties listed, a mini-storage facility and a multi-tenant building, are each a half-mile away. The next closest, an office/retail building is seven-tenths of a mile away. Then there's a property eight-tenths of a mile away. Then two properties each more than a mile away. That's walking distance?
Then there's the conclusions of the committee counsel itself. It goes a little beyond what Keil wrote. The conclusion is that since they could find no "anticipated or predictable" as opposed to "speculative" effect on the properties as a result of the earmark, there's no direct conflict. In other words, the effect has to be clearer than what had been presented. From the letter:
Furthermore, we recognize that Members typically own a personal residence or other types of property in their Congressional district, and that one of a Member's principal responsibilities is to promote the interests of the district, including by seeking funding for roads, utilities, and other public works projects.And finally:
Based on the representations made to the Committee in this matter, we conclude that it is within your discretion for you to conclude that your properties do not constitute a financial interest in in the earmark supporting the Corona Transit Center. Of Primary consideration here, it is our understanding that the Corona Transit Center project will not immediately affect the use of any of your properties or provide any other direct or unique benefits to the properties.Doyle decoded the first sentence of that paragraph. By putting it that way ("within your discretion") they were saying that while it may be technically legal, think twice about it because there may be the appearance that it's not right. And again it's that old transparency thing at play. Calvert approached the committee with details about the earmark and his properties near by. Now there's a paper trail and Doyle doubts that Calvert will go ahead with the earmark, now that everyone knows that he owns property near it.
It might be technically legal, but it just looks bad. And now everyone knows.