Panel that reviewed Andrews may be in danger

After Congressman Rob Andrews used campaign money to pay for a $30,000 trip to Scotland with his family, a little-known panel of Washington watchdogs added some key details.

It turned out that Andrews, a veteran South Jersey Democrat, had relied on his wife’s ethics advice for the OK to spend campaign cash on the lavish trip, even though she was one of the family members who would get to stay in the five-star Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh.

The questionable arrangement for advice was revealed by the Office of Congressional Ethics, a review board led by independent citizens, and led to this follow up story in the Inquirer. The OCE investigates potential ethics violations in Congress and produces detailed reports laying out possible problems.

The office, though, faces an uncertain future, because it turns out that exposing alleged Congressional misdeeds really ticks off some members of Congress. In fact, it makes them so mad that some want to get rid of the investigative board.

Some lawmakers want to dismantle it, believing it has disproportionately targeted African-American members of Congress, and others may simply let the panel wither by refusing to appoint new board members, according to a report this week in The Washington Post (the OCE portion of the story comes near the end).

That would be a significant loss for those who want to keep an eye on Congress, where ethics questions are often brushed off by lawmakers who appear most concerned with protecting their peers.

Since its creation in 2010, the OCE has referred 32 of possible violations to the House Ethics Committee – which has final say over any violations and punishments, and which is now reviewing Andrews’ campaign spending. In 30 of those cases, no penalties have been issued, according to the Post, though some are still pending. In other words, the House committee, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, almost never acts against its own members. Usually it exonerates them, even in the face of damning reports from the OCE.

But instead of showing the futility of the quasi-independent OCE, the numbers reveal why they are valuable, good-government groups have told me. The office’s reports are so detailed that the evidence can force a normally lax ethics panel to take action, or at least review the allegations. (At least that’s what the groups hope).

And even if the ethics committee doesn’t level formal sanctions, the reports at least shed a light on what elected officials are up to, giving the voters information they can use to make up their own minds and, maybe, adding a tinge of embarrassment to the worst actors, even if they argue that they didn’t break any laws.

Without the 244-page Andrews referral, we’d never have learned that he thought it was fine to use his wife’s legal advice for approval to spend campaign cash on the Scotland trip, or many other details that are now under review by the House, and easily available for examination by anyone who is interested, along with other investigations of members of both parties.

Andrews has said that the trip to Scotland, for a one-time adviser's wedding, was political, not personal, so campaign spending was appropriate. He has repaid the expenses to his campaign and donated the money to charity and has said he expects that a full ethics committee review will find that he followed all the necessary rules and regulations.

He may be right, and the history of the ethics committee says it’s likely that he won’t be sanctioned. But the OCE has given voters plenty of information to make their own judgments. Losing their reviews would make Washington even more opaque.