WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee on Monday declined to open a formal investigation into allegations that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers misused her campaign and congressional funds — a decision that rules out potential ethics charges or sanctions against the Spokane Republican for now.
However, two lawmakers on the bipartisan panel will continue reviewing the complaints, which were filed in 2013 by Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former spokesman.
It’s possible, though not likely, the committee could later impanel an investigative subcommittee to determine whether McMorris Rodgers broke federal laws and rules governing the separation of official funds from taxpayers and campaign funds from political donors.
Among Winer’s allegations, made public Monday, were that McMorris Rodgers’ congressional staff worked on her re-election campaign on the public’s time and dime, and that she hired a consultant to help her with media appearances and other duties related to her office but paid him out of her campaign treasury.
The Ethics Committee’s decision comes three months after a separate entity, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), found “substantial merit” to Winer’s allegations. The OCE’s board voted 6-0 to refer the case to the ethics panel, which has subpoena authority.
Elliot Berke, an attorney for McMorris Rodgers, said in a statement he expects the Ethics Committee’s continued review eventually will find no wrongdoing. He ascribed the decision not to drop the case entirely to the fact that a full review couldn’t be wrapped up in the 90 days the committee was allowed.
“We remain confident that, in time, the committee will dismiss the complaint, which was based on frivolous allegations from a single source — a former employee who then discredited himself by admitting to his own improper conduct,” Berke said.
McMorris Rodgers is a fiscal and social conservative and the No. 4 House Republican leader.
Winer was passed over for promotion as her communications director in her leadership office and was let go from her congressional office shortly after in January 2013.
Her congressional staff had previously described Winer’s allegations as primarily concerning improper commingling of campaign and official funds during her successful 2012 race for the House Republican Conference chairmanship against Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. House rules permit members to tap either campaign or official funds for leadership contests, but not both.
But the main thrust of the OCE’s findings, which the ethics panel was required to release, dealt with instances where McMorris Rodgers’ congressional staff members were allegedly enlisted to help with her re-election for a fifth term in November 2012.
For instance, the report said McMorris Rodgers’ chief of staff, Winer and other aides spent their work hours prepping her for campaign debates and writing debate speeches. In October 2012, four aides flew from Washington, D.C., to Spokane for a week of what the OCE concluded were mostly campaign-related events. Their airfare, meals and other travel expenses totaling $4,794 were picked up by McMorris Rodgers’ congressional office.
The OCE also listed several other instances of her aides dealing with re-election strategies and preparations — including a trip to the Republican National Convention — while on the clock for their congressional jobs.
The OCE also alleged McMorris Rodgers used a political-action committee (PAC) she controls to pay for a GOP consultant she hired in April 2012 to coach her on congressional television interviews and other media appearances.
The consultant, Brett O’Donnell, told the OCE his work was unrelated to her campaign. Yet the OCE concluded O’Donnell was paid $16,000 for eight months of work out of CMR PAC, a leadership PAC set up by McMorris Rodgers.