Meet the Missouri congressman at the center of the storm over ethics watchdog

Sam Graves
Sam Graves

Members of Congress reportedly cited an 8-year-old ethics investigation into Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, at a closed-door meeting Monday night, as an example of why they needed to rein in their independent ethics watchdog.

Graves’ spokesman, Wesley Shaw, declined to say Tuesday how the congressman had voted in the secret ballot Monday, “due to the private nature of the vote.”

But Politico reported that Graves was among those lawmakers who “vocally supported” the proposed change.

In the 2009 ethics investigation, Graves’ fellow lawmakers eventually exonerated him – but not before the congressman had spent significant time and money defending himself against what he complained at the time were “frivolous, anonymous allegations.”

Rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives GOP had voted overwhelmingly Monday, by 119-74, to place the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee – essentially giving lawmakers more control over what some had come to think was an out-of-control organization.

Hours later, they unanimously agreed to pull their proposal after President-elect Donald Trump sent a tweet Tuesday morning criticizing the move’s timing.

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” Trump wrote. “Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!”

The changes proposed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would have prohibited the investigation of anonymous tips and would have kept the watchdog’s staff from disclosing the findings of investigations to other government agencies or to the public, according to Goodlatte’s office.

Graves’ experience with the watchdog came up during Republicans’ closed-door meeting Monday as an example of how costly and damaging such investigations could become for members, even if the accusations are never proved.

In 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics recommended a formal investigation of Graves for inviting a business associate of his then-wife to testify on renewable fuels before the Small Business Committee, which Graves chaired. The businessman, Brooks Hurst, was invested in the same ethanol and bio-diesel cooperative as Graves’ wife.

Graves’ colleagues on the House Ethics Committee eventually cleared him of any wrongdoing and criticized the watchdog for its handling of the case.

Graves said at the time that the anonymous accusation “amounted to nothing more than a political smear.”

The overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House detest the Office of Congressional Ethics and want to revamp it, said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

“When that happened to Sam, I thought, ‘This is horrible.’ Then it happened to (North Carolina Rep.) Mel Watt. Then it happened to (Mississippi Rep.) Bennie Thompson. And all these people were cleared,” Cleaver said in an interview Tuesday.

“Some people say, ‘Well, if they were cleared, don’t worry about it,’ ” he said. “But once it hits the newspaper it’s just like mud thrown against a wall. It can fall to the ground but the stain is still there.”

Cleaver said Democrats stood ready to work with Republicans to repair what many of them considered a very flawed ethics office. But not in secret.

“I’ve listened to a lot of Democrats last night all the way to this morning saying, ‘Why did they mess this up like this?’ Because if they had called (House Democratic Whip) Steny Hoyer and said, ‘Hey, can you give us 10 guys to work with our 10 guys to fix it?’ we could have avoided all of this. Now even when we try to make repairs, there are going to be those who say, ‘Well, they’re trying to figure out a way to weaken the office.’ What we’re trying to do is make sure members of Congress receive the same protections as everyday citizens.”

Cleaver said lawmakers had received an avalanche of phone calls from voters chastising them for trying to water down the ethics rules.

“People are calling saying, ‘You guys don’t want to have any ethics,’ ” he said.

Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri voted in favor of making changes to the ethics office, her spokesman Kyle Buckles said Tuesday.

Buckles said the office was a broken agency that ignored the due-process rights of the accused and subjected innocent people to political attacks.

“The congresswoman believes reform is needed to allow the currently unchecked agency to continue its work independently while adding a level of oversight. In no way does she seek to weaken or eliminate the work of the office,” Buckles said in an email. “She ardently believes allegations of wrongdoing need to be taken very seriously, while also ensuring innocent people, without recourse, are not impugned over unverified or frivolous charges.”

Rep. Lynn Jenkins, another Kansas Republican, said there was no question in her mind that the Office of Congressional Ethics needed revising.

But she said any changes “should be done in a more transparent and bipartisan fashion.” Jenkins missed Monday’s vote because her flight was late.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, another Kansas Republican, said he’d voted in support of the changes to the ethics office proposed by his GOP colleagues Monday night.

But in a statement Tuesday, Yoder said any changes should go through an open, bipartisan process. “Not a closed-door meeting where votes were not recorded.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise