Rare Bipartisan Agreement: Let’s Sweep Baku Gifts Under the Rug

It’s hard to decide which is the worst part of the House Ethics Committee’s report on member/staff travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, but I am going to go with the discussion of tangible gifts. At least it is easiest to explain why that part is wrong. I will discuss other aspects of the report in future posts.

As you may recall, a large number of members and staff traveled to a 2013 conference in Baku, courtesy of a rather shadowy group of Turkish American non-profit organizations. The travel was approved in advance by the Ethics Committee, but the approval letter explicitly warned each traveler about the possible receipt of gifts from foreign governments during the trip. Specifically, the letter noted that “[a]ny tangible gifts valued in excess of $350 received from a foreign government must, within 60 days of acceptance, be disclosed on a Form for Disclosing Gifts from Foreign Governments and either turned over to the Clerk of the House, or, with the written approval of the Committee, retained for official use.” Report at 20 n. 95.

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Lessons from a Byzantine Scandal

Let’s say you are a Member of Congress who is approached by an obscure nonprofit organization about accepting an all-expense-paid trip to Baku, Azerbaijan during an upcoming recess. (Baku is on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, in case you need a map to locate it, which you probably do). The purpose of the trip is to attend a conference called the US-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future.

A brief glance at the itinerary for this event leaves little doubt it enjoys the official sanction of the Azerbaijan government. You and your colleagues will be meeting with the President of Azerbaijan himself, as well as the Speaker of Parliament, and will receive briefings from government agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and SOCAR, the state-owned oil company. These discussions will cover US-Azerbaijan relations, regional security challenges posed by Russia and Iran (between which nations Azerbaijan has the misfortune to be sandwiched), and matters relating to the construction of oil pipelines and energy security generally.

You decide, reasonably enough, that this looks like an interesting and educational trip that will help you gain a deeper understanding of these important matters on which you make policy. So you instruct your staff to work with the nonprofit organization, which we will call the “Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians” (TCAE), to submit the required forms and information to the House Ethics Committee, which then pre-approves the proposed trip pursuant to House Rule XXV, clause 5(d)(2).

And off you go, along with ten of your House colleagues, 32 staffers, 75 state legislators, and former elected officials such as Bill Richardson, Dick Lugar and Dan Burton. A journalist attending the conference describes it as “among the biggest concentrations of American political star power ever seen in the Caucasus,” which admittedly may be akin to boasting of the best gas station sushi in the state of Oklahoma.

The trip goes fine. You attend the scheduled events, try not to mispronounce too many Azeri names, and maybe even sneak in a little sightseeing in Baku’s Old City. You listen to a lot of speeches, including from former Obama administration officials David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs and Jim Messina. They mostly repeat the same pablum you could have heard in DC, though Gibbs does recount an amusing anecdote about then-Senator Obama haggling with a local rug merchant during a 2005 CODEL to Baku.

But no sooner than you have returned to the US, visions of lamb shish kebob still dancing in your head, the carping starts. At first it is largely directed at Plouffe, Gibbs and Messina, who received “five-figure checks” for their remarks at the Baku conference and are perceived as cashing in on their government service. (Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, the perpetual Dr. Bellows in pursuit of Major Nelson, says the Azeri government is “trying to buy favors with those who are well connected with the U.S. government” and suggests the three were “letting themselves be used as lobbyists.”) There is also criticism of the Baku conference as a whitewash of Azerbaijan’s less than stellar record on human rights and democracy.

The criticism hits closer to home, though, when it appears that your trip may not have complied with the rules regulating congressional travel after all. Although TCAE and other nonprofit organizations purported to be the sole source of funds for the congressional trips, reports emerge (see here and here) suggesting that the money actually came from other sources, particularly SOCAR. These allegations, which come out about the time you are filing your post-travel disclosure, are followed a year later by this Houston Chronicle article, which suggest congressional travelers to the Baku conference should have known that the conference was being funded by SOCAR and other oil companies based on banners and other conference materials that prominently identified these corporate sponsors.

Things go down hill from there. The Office of Congressional Ethics opens an investigation into the matter, asking you to provide documents and other information regarding your trip. The House Ethics Committee also starts looking into the matter and asks OCE to halt its investigation. OCE refuses, leaving you stuck in the middle. Then someone leaks OCE’s “confidential report” and you find your trip to Baku has made the front page of the Washington Post. It is somewhat unclear exactly what findings and recommendations OCE made, as the Post did not publish the report itself, but the Post article makes various insinuations about your ethics and judgment.

So, did you actually do anything wrong?

Like so much that has happened along the silk roads for the past couple millennia, it’s complicated.

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Delegate Morrissey and the Voters Who Love Him

So when we left off our discussion of Virginia Delegate Joseph Morrissey (D-Henrico turned I-Prison), I noted:

All of this is likely academic as the voters will probably not take up Morrissey’s case as a cause celebre ala Wilkes. But it should be noted that Wilkes was a famous libertine and some of his expulsions were based on his authorship of a pornographic parody that scandalized British society of the time. So you never know.

It’s always a good idea to qualify your predictions so subsequent events don’t make you look like a fool. As it happens, Morrissey’s constituents (at least those who bothered to show up in a low turnout election) were perfectly happy to keep him as their representative in Richmond, even though it means he will be commuting from a jail cell to his seat in the oldest continuous lawmaking body in the Western Hemisphere.

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Michael Grimm, John Wilkes and the House’s Power to Punish for Conduct Preceding Election

It is being reported that Representative Michael Grimm has agreed to resign his seat in the next Congress. Grimm was indicted on multiple federal charges in April, was reelected handily in November and last week pled guilty to a single count of tax fraud stemming from his ownership and management of a health food restaurant before his initial election to Congress in 2010. Grimm initially indicated that he would not resign, but he apparently changed his mind after a heart to heart with Speaker Boehner.

I have been looking into some of the legal issues that the House would have faced had Grimm decided to remain in Congress. Since these may now be moot, I will just briefly list the three major problems the House would have encountered in trying to discipline or expel Grimm for the offense to which he pled guilty.

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Senator Ervin on Congressional Discipline and Speech or Debate

I have previously explained that the Speech or Debate Clause does not protect members from discipline by their legislative body, up to and including expulsion. Since the subject arose again in the last couple of days (in the course of a Glenn Greenwald initiated thread on Twitter), it may be worth adverting to Senator Ervin’s argument before the Supreme Court in Gravel v. United States.

Senators Ervin and Saxbe represented the Senate as amicus curiae in the case, and the Court gave the Senate time during oral argument. Ervin’s argument stressed that the Senate “holds no brief” for Senator Gravel or his actions (i.e., reading of the classified Pentagon Papers in a subcommittee meeting). He acknowledged that Gravel’s actions may have been improper and/or in violation of Senate rules, but he contended that the Constitution places these questions exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Senate.

Senator Ervin stressed that a member of Congress is “not accountable” to the executive or judicial branches for his legislative activity, whether that activity is “regular or irregular under the rules of the legislative body of which he is a member.” In Gravel’s case, those questions were the business only of the Senate itself. In response to a justice who asked “That inquiry or discipline or both is something exclusively for the Senate?,” Ervin responded, “That’s right.”

Pointing out that the Rules of Proceedings and Discipline Clauses are in the section of Article I immediately preceding the section in which the Speech or Debate Clause appears, Ervin reiterated: “Our position is that . . . even though Senator Gravel may have violated Senate rules and even though he may have acted improperly, that is a matter for the judgment of the Senate and no other power in our government has the right to make any official pronouncement on that subject.”

Greenwald and his ilk argue that senators who believe (or claim to believe) that classified information should be released should put their money where their mouth is by reading the information on the floor of the Senate, where they would be protected by Speech or Debate immunity from legal punishment (though not from congressional discipline). Whatever one thinks about such congressional “civil disobedience” as a normative matter, I am puzzled that anyone would advocate it when the senators have not yet used, or attempted to use, the established Senate procedure for releasing classified information.

Judge Bates Dismisses Rangel’s Lawsuit

Last week, as expected, Judge Bates dismissed Representative Rangel’s lawsuit against the Speaker, the Clerk and various former members and staff of the Ethics Committee. As the court notes in conclusion, “everything on Rangel’s wish list implicates insurmountable separation-of-powers barriers to the Court’s exercise of authority,” with the “most problematic [being] Rangel’s unprecedented view that this Court may order the House to, in effect, un-censure him.”

This is certainly correct, and I think the court’s 49-page opinion gives Rangel’s arguments rather more attention than they deserve. Dismissal was more than justified by the following points made in the opinion:

  1. Rangel sued the wrong party. The court points out that “Rangel’s reputational harm was not caused by any of the defendants but by the House as an independent body- and it is not a party to this action.” (slip op. at 11)
  2. An order against these defendants would not have redressed Rangel’s alleged injuries because the defendants have no power to alter the House’s Journal (the relief requested by Rangel) on their own. (slip op. at 35)
  3. Even if the House had been a party, the court lacks the power to order the House to take any action that would redress Rangel’s alleged injuries. “This Court has the same ability to order the House to edit its own Journal as it does to order the House to discipline one of its Members or to promulgate a particular Rule- none.” (slip op. at 35-36)
  4. All of the defendants were in any event immune under the Speech or Debate Clause. (slip op. at 36-44)

Unfortunately, Judge Bates was not content to rest his opinion on these points but also engaged in an extensive, unnecessary and rather confusing discussion of the political question doctrine. He concludes that Rangel’s claims are barred by the political question doctrine, but only because Rangel failed to state a viable constitutional claim in the first place. The political question doctrine, however, is designed to identify situations in which a non-judicial body has the final say on a constitutional issue. If it applies only because the court finds no constitutional issue to resolve, invoking the doctrine seems pointless. The court seems to think that directly reviewing Rangel’s claims on the merits, rather than as part of the political question analysis, would evince a “lack of disrespect” (I think it means lack of respect) for the House, but the price of this politeness is to make the political question doctrine even murkier than it is already.

On balance, though, this opinion should stand as a caution against challenging House disciplinary proceedings in court, and that’s a good thing. One final note—someone should bring to the court’s attention that Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993) involved Judge Nixon, not former President Nixon. See slip op. at 33 (referring to “an ex-President challenging his impeachment in the courts.”).

How the House Deals with Cocaine Possession

As reported by Roll Call and various other outlets, Representative Trey Radel is to appear in D.C. Superior Court tomorrow to face charges of misdemeanor possession of cocaine. No one seems very clear on how this matter will be treated in the House so I think it is worth pointing out that House rules require the Ethics Committee to take action here.

House Resolution 5, which adopted rules for the 113th Congress, provides in Section 4(e) that “[t]he text of House Resolution 451, One Hundred Tenth Congress, shall apply in the One Hundred Thirteenth Congress in the same manner as such provision applied in the One Hundred Tenth Congress.” House Resolution 451, in turn, requires that:

          [W]henever a Member of the House of Representatives . . . is indicted or otherwise formally charged with criminal conduct in a court of the United States or any State, the Committee on [Ethics] shall, not later than 30 days after the date of such indictment or charge-

 (1)        empanel an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations; or

(2)        if the Committee does not empanel an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations, submit a report to the House describing its reasons for not empaneling such an investigative subcommittee, together with the actions, if any, the Committee has taken in response to the allegations.

As noted in the House Ethics Manual, Resolution 451 thus requires some action by the Ethics Committee whenever a Member is charged with criminal conduct, and “does not distinguish between felony and misdemeanor criminal charges.”

 

Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Disciplinary Power

In reference to my last post, it has been suggested by one of the more faithful commenters at Balkinization, Shag from Brookline, that the Speech or Debate Clause might bar a house of Congress from taking disciplinary action against a member who unilaterally releases classified information without authorization. Shag asks: “Can action by Congress trump the specific Speech and Debate [sic] clause? Is such Speech and Debate permitted to be questioned in a house of Congress with such action but not in any other Place? Does the First Amendment speech clause enhance or detract from the right (privilege) of a member of Congress under the Speech and Debate [sic] clause?” Shag goes on to ask how the original understanding of and historical practice under the Speech or Debate Clause might be applied in the context of “the fairly recently evolved national security state.”

As legal questions go, the ones Shag asks with regard to the Speech or Debate Clause have very straightforward answers. The text of the Clause is clear that it applies only in “any other Place,” i.e., outside the legislative branch. See, e.g., Howard v. Office of the Chief of Administrative Officer, No. 12-5119 (D.C. Cir. June 28, 2013) (“because the Office of Compliance process occurs within the Legislative Branch, not in a ‘other Place,’ the Speech or Debate Clause does not pose an issue in those cases”) (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting); see also United States v. Brewster, 408 U.S. 501, 517-21 (1972) (discussing the fact that misconduct protected by the Speech or Debate Clause may nonetheless be punished by either house under its disciplinary power). As far as I know, no member has ever asserted the Speech or Debate Clause, either as a defense or as a protection against inquiry, in the course of a congressional disciplinary proceeding. Nor has any scholar, court or anyone else with expertise on the Clause suggested that it could apply in a congressional proceeding. Put simply, a member who faces disciplinary action as the result of disclosing classified information can take no solace in the Speech or Debate Clause.

The question with regard to the First Amendment is slightly more complicated. We recently discussed, in the context of the Rangel case, the question of whether and to what extent constitutional protections apply in congressional disciplinary proceedings. As Outside Counsel’s report indicates, even if such protections apply, they cannot be applied in a rigid manner that ignores the unique nature, purpose and history of congressional disciplinary proceedings. Thus, while one can imagine a plausible First Amendment defense in a congressional disciplinary proceeding (say, for example, if the House or Senate sought to punish members who give interviews to a disfavored press outlet), it is unthinkable that the First Amendment would prevent the House and Senate from enforcing rules that are broadly consistent with traditional limitations on member speech. For example, members cannot claim a First Amendment right to violate rules of decorum and debate, by say interrupting another member who has the floor, using foul language in congressional proceedings, or insulting the President.

Is there a colorable argument that disclosure of classified information by a member deserves First Amendment protection from congressional discipline, perhaps because of the importance of such disclosure in checking “the fairly recently evolved national security state”? Put me in the deeply skeptical camp on that one. Both the House and Senate have had specific prohibitions against unauthorized disclosure of classified information for decades. Punishing members for unauthorized disclosure of secret information goes back even further. On December 31, 1810, it is reported: “The Senator from Massachusetts (Mr. Pickering) was censured for reading from confidential documents in the Senate in open session before the injunction of secrecy had been removed.” Riddick’s Senate Procedure 270 n.1. It is hard to imagine the House and Senate intelligence and ethics committees agreeing that individual members have a constitutional right to violate congressional secrecy rules just because they believe the public interest requires it.

Whatever the merits of such a constitutional argument, however, it will be weaker if a member makes it without first attempting to use the established congressional procedures for releasing classified information. This was my original point, and if Professor Ackerman or anyone else disagrees, they should explain why.

An Unwarranted Attack on the House and the Ethics Committee

In an oddly speaking complaint, Representative Charlie Rangel, represented by New York attorney Jay Goldberg, has filed suit in federal court against the Speaker, the Clerk and several former members and staff of the House Ethics Committee, including Zoe Lofgren, the former Democratic chair, and Jo Bonner, the former Republican ranking member. Cutting through the ample legal verbiage, Rangel’s complaint comes down to this: the court should set aside his December 2, 2010 censure by the House of Representatives because that discipline stemmed from a recommendation by the Ethics Committee that was tainted by “numerous flagrant, knowing and intentional violations of Plaintiff’s Due Process rights and his other fundamental constitutional rights.”

If a court could consider these claims, Rangel’s chances of prevailing on them would be extremely remote. They appear to be based entirely on internal memoranda written by Blake Chisam, then the staff director and chief counsel of the Ethics Committee, about alleged misconduct of two subordinate lawyers, Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign, who worked on both the Maxine Waters and Rangel cases. Rangel’s complaint attaches these memoranda (which we have discussed before) and describes them as “essential reading.” Complaint at ¶ 38.

The Ethics Committee previously retained Outside Counsel Billy Martin to investigate these precise allegations in the context of the Waters case. Martin conducted an extensive investigation, at substantial taxpayer expense, and reported to the Committee in September 2012 that there was no due process violation in the Waters matter. Although the report does not analyze the allegations with respect to the Rangel case, its reasoning strongly suggests the same result would obtain there.

Following the issuance of the Outside Counsel report, the Committee wrote to Rangel, rejecting his request to re-open his case. The letter begins by observing “[w]e have received and considered the numerous communications from your counsel, Mr. Jay Goldberg” (emphasis added).  It then states “it is the unanimous opinion of the Committee the there is no legal or factual basis supporting a conclusion that you have been deprived of any constitutional rights in your proceedings.” It emphasizes that this opinion was based on the analysis of its current non-partisan staff (which was not involved in the original Rangel matter) and was consistent with the analysis of Outside Counsel in the Waters case. It concludes with the suggestion that Rangel and his attorney not make “any further public comments” that are “misleading” or “inconsistent with the facts or law in this matter.” The Committee’s irritation with Rangel and Goldberg is barely disguised.

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