A group of government watchdog organizations called upon the House Committee on Ethics last month to release a report on free trips to Azerbaijan taken by 10 members of Congress in 2013. They might have to wait a while on that request. The Ethics Committee has no meetings scheduled and only a single bill for consideration.
In 2013, the U.S. Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) issued a confidential report, as was uncovered by the Washington Post, that detailed the cost of a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, paid by the government of that nation: “lawmakers and their staff members received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenses, silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs valued at $2,500 to $10,000 . . . Airfare for the lawmakers and some of their spouses cost $112,899, travel invoices show.”
The OCE delivered its report on that trip to the House Committee on Ethics, which said it conducted its own extensive investigation into the matter, concluding that there was no wrongdoing and refusing to release the OCE’s report to the public.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who sits on the ethics committee, did not return requests for comment.
As the committee’s July release on the matter concludes, “The committee intends to take no further action regarding this matter and thus considers it closed.”
Although Larson is not one of the 10 legislators who allegedly benefitted from Azerbaijan largesse, it is worth noting that, in August, 2014, he was named to the U.S. Congress Work Group on Azerbaijan, as was mentioned in a release issued by the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington.
In August, a letter was sent to the committee asking for the OCE report to be released, co-signed by, among other groups, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“The committee’s action, along with its order to OCE to “cease and refer” without the Committee having officially started an investigation, sets a dangerous precedent that could fundamentally undermine the important benefits that OCE has brought to the House ethics process,” the letter reads.
The concerned organizations may have to learn patience — the last public meeting of the House Committee on Ethics took place Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. In fact, the only bill listed as under consideration by the committee is the Transparency in Government Act of 2015, which came to the committee in March and has not yet been reported out.
The committee’s last official report was issued in December 2014, though there have been a few official statements made, most recently regarding the investigation into Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., whose office has been accused of blending legislative and campaign roles and responsibilities.
In September, the Committee on Ethics announced that in June it had decided “to extend the committee’s review” of Honda’s office.
A 2014 Gallup poll found that Americans feel members of Congress are not very ethical, only 7 percent saying that congresspeople have “very high” ethical standards.
According to official records, the Committee on Ethics spent $1,316,924.76 between January 1 and June 30, 2015.
Jordan Fenster can be reached by or @JordanFenster on Twitter.