Wednesday, January 02, 2013

House Ethics Committee #Fail, Buck McKeon Gets Off on a Technicality


We already knew that Congress had a pretty low approval rating by the American public. In fact, 2012 has seen the lowest approval since Gallup has been keeping records and the trend doesn’t look good.

Approval is at 18% right now, but we anticipate that to tank after the bungled fiscal cliff negotiations. But aside from the low job approval ratings, the American people don’t think Members of Congress are very honest. In a December Gallup poll most Americans gave members of Congress as having “low/very low” ethical standards, lower than car salesmen, HMO managers, and stockbrokers. Only 7% of those polled thought Members of Congress were ethical.

If that wasn’t bad enough already, the 112th Congress will go down in history as one of the least productive in history, passing even fewer bills than the “Do Nothing Congress” coined by President Harry Truman in 1947.

There is one thing that both parties in Congress agree on, passing the buck on ethics investigations. The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which is the only government body outside of Congress with the charge of investigating Members of Congress, will be essentially dismantled in 2013. Leaders in both parties have yet to appoint new board members to the OCE. Without board members, the OCE will be gutted of any ability to act. The OCE was formed 4 years ago when House leaders said they wanted to “drain the swamp” of scandals and corruption in Washington after public embarrassments from former Reps. Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

While the OCE is the only government watchdog for ethics outside of Congress, the House Ethics Committee and Senate Select Committee on Ethics are within Congress. These Congressional committees are the only bodies that can actually hold members accountable. Since its inception, the OCE has completed more than 100 investigations into lawmakers, which yielded 37 referrals to the House Ethics Committee for action. The ethics committees are frequently criticized for taking no action since they are investigating their own members. There’s no better example of that conflict of interest leading to inaction than the recent refusal to bring charges against House members involved in the Countrywide mortgage loan scandal.

Several Members of Congress were caught being bribed by Countrywide Financial with discount mortgages and waived fees. The poster boy in this scandal was Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform conducted a nearly yearlong investigation resulting in this 135 page report. Buck McKeon was the subject of several pages of this report, which outline how he was notified he was receiving special treatment (pages 43- 45) and contained copies of correspondence (pages 60-63) between him and the “VIP” loan unit at Countrywide, called the “Friends of Angelo” after then-CEO Angelo Mozilo.

Listen to Committee Chair Darrell Issa describe the kinds of bribes lawmakers got from Countrywide:

Mozilo personally ordered the terms of McKeon’s loan, “take off 1 point, no garbage fees, approve the loan and make it a no doc.” He didn’t come about this loan the normal way that you or I would get a loan, by a loan officer or a mortgage broker. He met with Mike Farrell, a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, who’s job was to get Members of Congress to vote to raise the FHA loan limits. Farrell referred McKeon to the Friends of Angelo program for a refinance of his home and McKeon vote to raise the FHA loan limit 1 day before his loan was approved, and several more times thereafter.

Let’s look at the deal McKeon got. He purchased his home for $261,000 in 1997, then in 1998 after choosing his own appraiser, refinanced the home in the Countrywide VIP program for $315,000. That calculates to an increase in his home value of 21% in a little over a year. The LA Times reported he pocketed a net of $46,894 in cash. Then just five months later he took out a second mortgage for $30,000 in cash, making the home value jump a total of 32% in a 1 ½ years.

If that isn’t evidence enough, the House Ethics Committee refused to bring charges against McKeon and other involved because “many of the allegations pertain to actions outside the Ethics Committee's statute of limitations-- greater than three Congresses ago-- and many of those accused are no longer working in Congress either as members or staffers.”

Understandably, Rep. Darrell Issa is not happy that the Ethics Committee threw away a year of his committee’s work. He said although the Ethics Committee took no action, it’s other statements "clearly indicated that Countrywide’s efforts were inconsistent with House rules."

So it looks like Lucky Bucky got off scot-free from any official Congressional ethics disciplinary action. He may have broken federal law and could be at risk of prosecution. But in the meanwhile, 2014 is the next chance the voters will have to judge Buck McKeon. His 2012 opponent who held him to his narrowest win in his 20 year career, used the Countrywide scandal to his advantage and produced a TV ad and material here ( Let’s hope the voters in CA-25 wise up in 2014 to Buck’s unscrupulous behavior in Congress.

Oh, and in case you wondered how Buck McKeon voted on the 2008 bill to establish the Office of Congressional Ethics, it was “Nay.” Perhaps he knew something?

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