Ethics committee clears Pete Stark

The House Ethics Committee has cleared Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, of any wrongdoing in regards to a tax break related to the home he owns in Maryland. In doing so, the committee’s report issues a smackdown to the independent, nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics (created by the House but run by a board of private citizens), which had pursued the investigation.

From the report’s executive summary:

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has alleged that Representative Fortney “Pete” Stark violated Maryland criminal tax law and ethics rules of the House of Representatives by intentionally filing a false application for a Maryland property tax credit.

The evidence clearly establishes that Representative Stark did not receive a tax credit as a result of filing an application for the credit. The evidence also establishes that he did not file a false application for the Maryland property tax credit.

Representative Stark did not seek out the Maryland property tax credit. The State of Maryland required every homeowner in Maryland to fill out a form to determine their eligibility for the tax credit.

Therefore, Representative Stark did not violate House ethics rules. Nor did he run afoul of Maryland’s criminal or tax laws.

The summary goes on to say that the Ethics Committee concludes “that OCE conducted an inadequate review, the result of which was to subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal allegations,” and that “(i)t’s apparent from OCE‟s work that they treated Representative Stark inconsistently with the way they treated four other Members of Congress with similar situations whose cases were properly dismissed.”

When I wrote about this issue 10 months ago, Stark explained thus: “I’ve owned this house I believe since 1988 … and I believe I’ve had this exemption all that time. In ‘07, Maryland changed their law and said if people were going to get the principal residence deduction, they had to affirmatively apply and be approved. Prior to that, I had never heard from them.”

“So in January, I got a form and it asked those questions: Do I live in this house more than six months a year and over a period of July 1? The answer is yes. Do I file Maryland and federal income tax from this address? Yes. Do I vote at this address? No. Do I have my driver’s license here? No.”

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says a member of Congress must “when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen.” Stark – elected to the House in 1972, and now second-ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee as well as chair of its influential Health Subcommittee – said he rents a townhouse in Fremont fpr when’s back here in his district to satisfy that constitutional requirement; he’s registered to vote at, and uses the mailing address of, his in-laws’ San Lorenzo home so that they can keep track of his mail when he’s out of town and so the occasional “crazy” doesn’t arrive on his doorstep.

“If I owned a house in California, there’s no way I could’ve taken the principal residence deduction here” in Maryland, Stark said last year. “But my guess is we spend two-thirds of the time here, my kids go to school here in Maryland. By any definition of where I spend most of the time, it would be in the Washington, DC area – this is where I work.”

Stark now says the OCE seems to “comb through the press, and I’m pretty sure this came from a Bloomberg guy who was pretty sure he had a Pulitzer Prize, I guess, on putting me away.”

“When the Ethics Committee got the OCE report, I had to hire a lawyer – which is kind of a pain – to deal with it formally,” he added. “But they were just trying to make a case where no case existed, as I think this report will show.”

Lots more on how OCE and Ethics Committee probes work, after the jump…

Members of the OCE’s board are appointed by the House Speaker and House Minority Leader. The current board chairman is former Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., and the co-chair is former CIA director and former Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla. The other members are former California Assemblywoman and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, a Democrat; Jay Eagen, a former Republican Congressional aide and former House Chief Administrative Officer; former Rep. Karan English, D-Ariz.; former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn.; George Mason University Assistant Professor of Law Allison Hayward, a former Federal Election Commission staffer; and former Democratic Congressman, federal appellate court judge and Clinton White House Counsel Abner Mikva. The OCE’s staff director and chief council is Leo Wise, a former Bush Administration Justice Department official.

The OCE’s investigations have two stages: a preliminary review completed in 30 days, and a second-phase review completed in 45 days with the possibility of a 14-day extension; the OCE’s board must authorize each preliminary and second-phase review. At the end of any second-phase review, the Board must recommend to the Ethics Committee either that the matter requires the Committee’s further review or that it should dismiss the matter.

OCE launched its preliminary probe of Stark and four other lawmakers in the same situation somewhere between the end of May and early June, according to the Ethics Committee’s report; the Bloomberg News report to which Stark referred was published March 19. Four members of the OCE board voted June 26 to end all the reviews except Stark’s, for which they recommended a second-phase review. A 14-day extension was approved Aug. 5, the same day that OCE reported to the Ethics Committee that Maryland’s administration of the tax credit meant the other four lawmakers weren’t at fault. “No apparent explanation has been offered by OCE as to why this fact did not protect Representative Stark,” the Ethics Committee now notes.

OCE’s second-phase review ended Aug. 28, and OCE’s Board voted Oct. 23 to refer only Stark’s case to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review. The Ethics Committee sent the OCE report to Stark in November, and Stark’s lawyer filed a response Dec. 1. Ethics Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and ranking member Jo Bonner, R-Ala., announced Dec. 24 that they’d jointly decided to extend consideration of the OCE report for 45 days.

UPDATE @ 3:20 P.M.: OCE Communications Director Jon Steinman just sent the following statement:

“The OCE conducted a thorough and professional review and accurately reported the facts gathered in the course of its review. The document the Standards Committee is citing, in order to claim that the OCE ‘s review was inadequate, was never provided to the OCE by Representative Stark. In fact, according to the Anne Arundel County Finance Office, such documents are not even mailed to homeowners until the end of November 2009 — almost three months after the OCE review concluded.

“Further, the OCE’s review concerned the following allegation, ‘Representative Stark’s conduct may have violated Maryland law and the Code of Ethics for Government Service if he misrepresented information on the Application for Homestead Credit Eligibility in order to prove eligibility.’ Thus, the OCE review focused on what steps Representative Stark took or did not take to secure the credit not whether he was successful in securing the credit.

“At no time did the OCE subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal allegations.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.