Ongoing spat over Pete Stark investigation

Smacked down last month by the House Ethics Committee, the independent, nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics today defended its investigation of Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont.

The OCE last year launched a probe of Stark and four other lawmakers to see whether they had violated Maryland criminal tax law and House ethics rules 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,” an executive summary of the Ethics Committee’s report stated. “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.”

But the Ethics Committee also concluded “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.”

Not so, the OCE insisted today in a response to the Ethics Committee.

“Three of the four other Members that the OCE reviewed did not apply for the homestead tax credit. The fourth individual applied for the credit but did not certify that s/he voted in Maryland. Thus, the information developed by the OCE regarding Representative Stark was unique among this group,” the OCE said.

The OCE also noted that an inconsistency between Stark’s testimony, information from Maryland officials and from Stark’s lawyer about Stark’s communications with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation remain “unresolved and unexplained.”

Also, a tax bill that the Ethics Committee – formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct – cited as evidence of Stark’s innocence wasn’t available until after the OCE’s review was finished, the OCE noted.

The SOOC claims that the OCE Board’s decision to refer this matter to the SOOC for “further review” was “in error.” Unfortunately, in reaching this conclusion the SOOC has misconstrued both the information developed by the OCE investigation and role assigned to the OCE Board by the House. When the time allowed for the OCE investigation ended, the information available to the OCE provided a substantial basis for the OCE Board to recommend further review by the SOOC. Accordingly, it referred the matter to SOOC by a unanimous vote. The OCE Board recognizes that the SOOC, in all cases, is empowered to reach its own conclusion on the facts before it. The Board also notes that the SOOC has additional investigative authorities, does not operate under the time constraints imposed on the OCE by the Resolution and, in many instances, including this one, conducts its investigation after the OCE concludes its work and, as a result, has the benefit of additional information not available to the OCE.

Stark’s office declined comment; I’ve reached out to the Ethics Committee, but haven’t heard back yet.

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.

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.