House ethics panel drops Joe Wilson probe

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 3, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The House ethics committee has ended its investigation of Rep. Joe Wilson after its staff found insufficient evidence that he’d misused taxpayer-funded expense money during official travel abroad.

Wilson, a Lexington Republican elected to his fifth full House term in November, hailed the decision to drop the eight-month probe of him and five other lawmakers.

“I appreciate the members of the Committee on Standards (of Official Conduct) for thoroughly examining the matter brought before them,” Wilson said. “There was never any doubt in my mind that this matter would be dismissed.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who chairs the House ethics committee, and Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, its senior Republican announced the dropped case Friday, a federal holiday.

“In light of the recommendations of the staff, the committee will take no further action regarding these six matters,” Lofgren and Bonner said in a joint statement.

Besides Wilson, the ethics panel cleared fellow Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama and Democratic Reps. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Solomon Ortiz of Texas and Eliot Engle of New York.

Lofgren and Bonner for the first time made public the full report by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, an outside agency that had referred the foreign travel investigation to the House ethics committee in July.

After accepting the agency’s referrals for the six lawmakers, Lofgren and Bonner decided Nov. 15 to extend the ethics panel’s probe for 45 days, leading to its determination last week.

“Based on OCE’s own acknowledgements in each of the six referrals, the committee concludes that there is insufficient evidence to determine with any degree of certainty that any one of the members were provided an amount of per diem (expense money) that was not necessary for their respective trips,” the ethics committee said in a report.

In Wilson’s case, the ethics committee’s staff disputed earlier findings by the Office of Congressional Ethics that he should have reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the costs of 16 “hosted” meals he’d received during three trips in 2009.

“From the information provided by OCE, it appears that Representative Wilson may have received six meals that were ‘hosted’ during all of his trips,” the ethics panel report said.

“There is no evidence that Representative Wilson actually ate at or attended the meals that were identified as ‘hosted’ on the itineraries,” the committee found.

The panel also concluded “there is no evidence that per diem (expense money) was actually used” by Wilson or other lawmakers to buy small gifts on their overseas travel.

The new report disclosed for the first time that ethics investigators reviewed Wilson’s purchases of a statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and flags from foreign countries.

The report confirmed earlier reports that the investigators had also probed Wilson’s purchases of small marble goblets in Afghanistan.

The House created the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008 after a string of lawmakers’ scandals. Its board has no current members of Congress and the same number of Democrats and Republicans.

Wilson’s three trips under investigation, among 30 official foreign journeys he’s taken since May 2002, were to Japan and Korea in February 2009; to Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bahrain in April 2009; and to Turkey, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar and Germany in August 2009.

Much of the support for Wilson’s actions on the three trips came from Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Thurston, a legislative liaison officer who accompanied him and other lawmakers on the travel and helped arrange some of their overseas meetings.

In its referral to the House ethics committee, the Office of Congressional Ethics “estimated” that Wilson had received a total of $1,408 in expense money on the three trips, but had spent only $980 of it, and hadn’t returned the $428 in excess funds to the Treasury.

Thurston, however, said he and other military escort officers don’t keep records of meals they arrange and often are reimbursed by lawmakers after paying the original bills.

Thurston said lawmakers attended receptions that “were not meals, but are typically limited to drinks and hors d’oeuvres,” and that “it was not uncommon for attendees to attend a reception and then eat a meal later.”

The ethics committee cast doubt on some of the travel figures determined for Wilson and the other lawmakers by the Office of Congressional Ethics.

“It could not determine the exact amount of any of the members’ meals and incidental expenses and therefore decided to estimate the amounts,” the committee report said.

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