What Fresh Hell Is This?

May 19, 2007

Congressman Doyle Explains

This bubbled up over at Talkingpointsmemo yesterday and they must've found it important because it was tagged as the day's "must read." The posting starts with this:
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.


Bram Reichbaum said...

"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."

How long until the local analogies start kicking in? :-)

Rust Belt said...

Just a remark regarding your "walking distance" outrage. Living in the City, I routinely walk over a mile to get to destinations. I live in the Shadyside neighborhood, and, to put it bluntly, I am not going to drive just to walk from Emerson St to Walnut.

I believe we need to look at the actual location of the commuter transit center. If it is in a heavily residential area, then I don't think there will be questions of ethics violations. The Congressman could merely be a landlord in the area, and having several properties in a dense residential area is a high probability.

If, however, this is in the middle of nowhere, then I think there is a question of ethical propriety. We aren't talking about a dense area, we are talking about a cherry-picked spot to help increase his property values. It shouldn't be a question of whether other landowners will see a rise in their property value. Plain and simple, it is a question of whether or not a Congressman is financially benefitting from his own earmark.

While it is nice to go on and on along the, "look we know about this stuff now under the Democrats" line of reasoning, this follows the Democrats history. Sure, now you can know about the violations of ethics, but we still aren't going to do anything to stop them. Sort of like "sure, we are going to investigate the Bush administration, but impeachment is off the table."

They are more than happy to "investigate" just not to act.

Anonymous said...

It takes about 15-20 minutes to walk a mile (if you're walking at a leisurely pace). Many Americans may be having more trouble walking anywhere, but since the recommended MINIMUM daily amount of exercise is 30 minutes, anything within a mile or two should still be considered walking distance...

Keith Ashdown said...

As you reported, Rep. Calvert (R-CA) went to the ethics committee seeking advice on the new earmark rules. What my organization, TPM, and others have had a beef about was the ethics committee ruling (maybe written by an attorney on the committee, but signed by the committee’s Chairman and ranking member) that Rep. Calvert has no financial interest in the Corona Transit Center earmark. The committee based its review on factors including whether “the real estate would be affected uniquely or as part of a class belonging to landowners in the area generally.” From my reading, none of the earmark/land scandals involving members of Congress uncovered over the last year would be against the rules under this new, overly-broad definition, which sets a horrible precedent for future consideration of what constitutes conflict of interest.

Rep. Doyle (D-PA) is correct that Rep. Calvert went to the ethics committee because he has to certify that he has no financial interest in this earmark under new House rules. The problem for the public is that the ethics committee is a confidential process and the only reason the Calvert letters were released at all (to reporters, not to the public) was, as far as we know, to implement a Crate-A-Paper-Trail strategy by the Congressman. (BTW, the most interesting part of the Rep. Doyle’s comments was the mention of the 100 advisory requests. Unfortunately, those decisions will remain unavailable to the public unless the lawmakers themselves decide to release them.)

As someone who has studied earmarking in Rep. Calvert’s district, I’m certain that the Congressman earmarks in the parts of his district when he is buying and selling land. In the case of the Corona Transit Center, it is very likely that Rep. Calvert’s seven properties will increase in value because of this project. All other facts aside, the process that Rep. Doyle says or implies is working is still failing American taxpayers. And despite his assurances, Rep Calvert will most likely still request this earmark and get it, now from his new high-up perch on the Appropriations committee.

Keith Ashdown
Taxpayers for Common Sense

dayvoe said...


I don't think the committee said that Calvert (and just for the record I am NOT defending Calvert here) had "no" financial interest in the area where the transit center would be located. My reading of the letter was that there was not enough evidence to show that there was a conflict of interest on Calvert's part. He's acting in that gray area between "obviously clean" and "obviously against the rules."

Don't get me wrong, it's quite possible that Calvert picked the site to help his own finances. I don't know - I'm not trying to make that case. What I am saying is that that criticism of the ethics committee on this instance, given the rules they've set for the House, is off the mark.

If the rules themselves are skewed, then that's a separate issue - and perhaps you should attack there.

And if the process isn't transparent enough, then feel free to attack there as well. But for this instance, as far as I understand it and as laudable as your position is, you guys went off half-cocked on this one.

Usually a fan...