Applicability of Federal Criminal Laws to OCE Investigations

In one of his last opinions on the D.C. Circuit, Judge Griffith resolved another congressional case, United States v. Bowser, No. 18-3055 (D.C. Cir. June 30, 2020), albeit one less consequential than McGahn. David Bowser, a former chief of staff to Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga), was convicted of obstructing an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into whether Broun had improperly used funds from his “Members Representational Allowance” (MRA) to pay for campaign related expenses.  Specifically, OCE in 2014 launched an inquiry into whether a “messaging consultant” hired by Broun’s office had been paid out of the MRA for time spent on Broun’s congressional and senate campaigns.

In response to OCE’s preliminary review of these allegations, Bowser coached witnesses to provide false or misleading information to OCE, encouraged them to withhold responsive and relevant documents, and did the same himself. As a consequence, he was indicted and convicted of obstructing Congress, concealing material facts from OCE, and making false statements.

On appeal, there were two principal legal issues presented. First, the court addressed whether the obstruction of Congress statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1505, applies to OCE investigations. The statute applies to any investigation or inquiry by “either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress.” As the court noted (and the government conceded), this language on its face does not encompass OCE. It stressed that Congress knows how to draft statutes to cover offices such as OCE when it wishes to do so, contrasting the limited scope of § 1505 with the False Statements Act, which “applies to ‘any investigation or review, conducted pursuant to the authority of any committee, subcommittee, commission or office of the Congress.'” Bowser, slip op. at 8 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 1001(c)(2)) (emphasis added by court).

The government argued, however, that OCE conducts investigations as an agent for the House and/or the House ethics committee. The court was not persuaded. It pointed out that the statute defines which “agents” it covers, i.e., committees and joint committees, and therefore other entities could not be covered simply because they act in some general sense as agents for one house or Congress as a whole. It also found that OCE’s functions under the House rules undercut the government’s argument because OCE merely has the limited power of conducting reviews and issuing recommendations to the ethics committee, which then determines whether to undertake the actual “investigation.”

Accordingly, the D.C. Circuit found the obstruction statute inapplicable to OCE’s inquiry and affirmed the district court’s grant of Bowser’s post-trial motion for acquittal on the obstruction charge.

The second major issue was Bowser’s claim that the district court should have also granted his motion for acquittal on the charge of concealment under the False Statements Act. While he did not dispute that OCE was an “office of the Congress” within the meaning of that statute, he argued there could be no concealment because OCE’s preliminary reviews are voluntary and therefore impose no duty on witnesses to disclose information. The court, however, held that a voluntary ethics investigation or review may impose a duty to disclose as long as witnesses are given fair notice of this fact. Under the circumstances of this case, Bowser was under such a duty because he had certified in writing that he had fully complied with OCE’s request for information and had been advised that his disclosure was subject to the False Statements Act.

Bowser is a fairly straightforward statutory interpretation case which is probably not all that interesting to anyone except lawyers who represent clients in House ethics matters. Its most immediate impact, I suspect, will be to give such lawyers cover for advising their clients not to cooperate voluntarily with OCE.

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