A Question of Ethics

What Are the Lessons of the Carib News Investigation?

May 11, 2010

Q: As a staffer for a Member of the House, one of my responsibilities is to administer our Member’s trips. In that light, I hope that you can help me understand the House ethics committee’s recent decision regarding Caribbean trips taken by several Members. As I understand it, the committee admonished Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) but took no action against all of the other Members on the trips. I want to make sure our office avoids any missteps in the travel process. What did the committee conclude that Rangel did wrong that the other Members didn’t?

A: Last year, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct began an investigation of trips that six Members took to business conferences hosted by the Carib News Foundation in 2007 and 2008. In late February, the committee released the investigation report. While the report stated that all six Members must repay the sponsor of the trips, it concluded that only one of them, Rangel, committed an ethics violation.

To find the distinction, the place to start is the rules. This investigation was one of the first test cases for travel rules adopted in 2007. Under the rules, an entity that employs lobbyists may not sponsor a Member’s travel for trips longer than one day. The rules also provide that a sponsor of a Member’s trip must certify certain information for Members regarding the trip, including that there are no sources of funding for the travel other than the sponsor itself. One purpose of this is to prevent entities with lobbyists from using other organizations as vehicles for paying for trips for which the entities are otherwise forbidden to finance. The Member then uses the certified information to request permission from the ethics committee for the privately sponsored trip. The committee approves or denies the request based on the information provided.

In this case, Rangel and five other Members took trips to Caribbean islands in 2007 and 2008 for conferences hosted by the Carib News Foundation. The trips were ostensibly paid for by the foundation. To gain approval for the trips, the Members all submitted information to the ethics committee stating that the foundation was the sole source of funds for the trip. As it turns out, the report says, this was false. Several corporations had allegedly paid for portions of the conference. As a result, the ethics committee report concluded that all Members who attended the conference must reimburse the expense of the trips. Whether there was an ethics violation turned on whether the Members knew that someone other than the foundation had financed their trips.

For five of the six Members, the report found no ethics violation because they were unaware that a source other than the foundation had paid for their trips. Rangel’s case was different. The report found that his staffers were aware of the other trip sponsors, and they even wrote a memorandum to Rangel discussing some of the other sponsors. The memorandum, which was prepared in advance of the trips, stated that the foundation was concerned that a corporate sponsor had backed out of the trip, but it also provided confirmation that another sponsor was “holding strong.” Rangel testified that he did not recall seeing the memorandum, and the committee ultimately did not conclude that Rangel knew about its contents.

It did conclude, however, that Rangel failed to “exercise proper supervision over his staff and office to ensure such information was properly reported.” The report stated that “Members are responsible for the knowledge and acts acquired or committed by their staff within the course and scope of their employment.” On these bases, the report admonished Rangel for an ethics violation. This provides perhaps one of the report’s most significant lessons. The report itself called it an “advisory for all Members, employees, and officials of the House that Members may be held responsible for the knowledge and official conduct of their staff.” As a staffer, this is a major lesson to take away from the investigation.

Yet, there is one other lesson that could be even more significant, and it applies not just to staffers but to people outside Congress as well. Be mindful of the risks of being involved in an investigation, even when you are not the one being investigated. While this was a Congressional investigation focused on Members, the individuals who could wind up in the biggest trouble are not even in Congress. The report concluded that two agents of Carib News Foundation made false statements to the government, in part by indicating on travel sponsor forms provided to Members that the only sponsor of the Members’ trips was the foundation. While the House ethics committee lacks the authority to discipline people outside the House, the committee can and in this case did make referrals to the Department of Justice, citing the agents for possible violations of two criminal statutes that carry heavy fines and long prison sentences. So, perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that when you are dealing with the government, tell the truth.


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