Another section of the wall House Republicans tried to build last week against ethics investigators has been discovered intact. Their attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics failed, but it turns out they succeeded in a rule change allowing them to hide office documents from investigators.
What in the world are they afraid of? Did they know, before the 115th Congress was a day old, that they would commit unethical or criminal acts? These are the elected supporters of the Donald Trump who campaigned against “corrupt Hillary,” and their leader is Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
It appears no one would have noticed the new rule had it not been for the highly respected and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2017/01/house-rules-change-didnt-hear-about/ , which has a long record of tracking details of money in politics. Their discovery was picked up by The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/secret-new-rule-allows-house-members-to-hide-records-from-ethics-probes_us_58746aefe4b099cdb0ff34eb and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/01/new_house_rule_change_likely_m.html.
What the Center found was an obscure sentence slipped into the package of rules changes House Republicans passed on their first day at work, Jan. 3, that would make it much harder for investigators to get access to documents relating to the operation of their offices.
The sentence reads: “Records created, generated, or received by the congressional office of a Member … are exclusively the personal property of the individual Member [emphasis added]… and such Member … has control over such records.”
By establishing that office records are no longer the property of Congress but are the private property of the member herself, the rule extends Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination from the individual to office records; simply producing them could be incriminating under a legal concept known as the act-of-production privilege.
The matter arose in the pending criminal case against former Rep. Aaron Schock, Republican of Illinois, who was indicted on a series of fraud charges but won’t go to trial until summer.
Meanwhile, Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Washington Post that his committee will go “full throttle” after State Department documents related to Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state though she is no longer in government.
The documents relating to her office are government property, but documents relating to a congressman’s office are private property? Are Republican members of Congress doing private business or the public’s business?