Ethics office examining eight lawmakers over fundraising

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mel Watt is among eight Republican and Democratic lawmakers under scrutiny by a congressional ethics office for fundraising that took place near the time of a key House vote last year on a financial regulatory overhaul.

Watt, a Charlotte Democrat, is chairman on a House financial services subcommittee and has participated in the House-Senate negotiations for a final bill. His congressional district also includes one of the nation's largest financial institutions, Charlotte-based Bank of America.

Watt held a fundraiser two days before he withdrew an amendment that would have put auto dealerships under the regulatory umbrella of a consumer financial protection agency. Several financial firms contributed to his campaign around the same time.

Watt said recently that he has adhered to both the letter and the spirit of House ethical standards.

The Office of Congressional Ethics sent letters this spring to five Republican House members and three Democrats, all of whom serve on the House Committees on Financial Services or Ways and Means.

The office also sent letters to lobbying firms that work in the financial sector.

The letters ask for details of contributions and communications about fundraising for eight House offices from Jan. 1, 2009, to the present.

"It's unfortunate that this has been leaked to the press and that could leave the impression that there has been some impropriety," Watt said in a recent statement on his website.

"Despite that, I think it's better for me not to comment about the investigation until it is completed," Watt said. "I am fully confident that the investigation will conclude that there has been no violation of either the letter or the spirit of any laws or ethical standards."

The Office of Congressional Ethics, formed in 2008, is a citizen panel that makes preliminary inquiries into ethics allegations within the House of Representatives. If it finds a substantial reason to believe allegations are true, it may refer the cases to the House ethics committee, which is made up of lawmakers.

During the current Congress, nearly half of the office's preliminary reviews were terminated after the first stage.

A spokesman at the office said he could not comment on any pending investigation.

The inquiry into the eight lawmakers is focused on financial contributions between Dec. 2 and Dec. 11. The House voted Dec. 11 to approve a package of financial regulatory regulations. Watt voted in the majority.

Watt held a fundraiser Dec. 9 at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington. The invitation, posted at the Sunlight Foundation's Party Time website, lists Watt's membership on both the judiciary and financial services committees.

The fundraiser was Watt's annual Krispy Kreme and Bojangles' Fried Chicken event. Both companies are based in his district.

Watt raised more than $35,000 from political action committees in the first half of December, according to a review of contributions.

Many contributions came from financial firms, including Bank of America, Ameriprise Financial and Goldman Sachs.

The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper that first reported on the probe, wrote last month that the office is reviewing an amendment Watt withdrew two days after a fundraiser.

The amendment focused on auto loans and whether they ought to be included in the consumer regulatory agency.

Watt is the only North Carolina lawmaker included in the Office of Congressional Ethics' inquiry.

The other House members are Republicans John Campbell of California; Jeb Hensarling of Texas; Chris Lee of New York; Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Tom Price of Georgia. The other Democrats are Joseph Crowley of New York and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.

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