Bruce Braley Exposed: Response to Ethics Complaint May Trigger House Scrutiny



220px-Bruce_Braley_official_110th_Congress_photo_portraitBy Cody Brown

As outlined in a recent House ethics complaint, Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) is in clear violation of House ethics rules for using official taxpayer resources to sponsor an event on August 20, 2012, outside of his current district and inside the district in which he is campaigning for reelection. Braley’s response to the complaint on Friday was designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the public and reporters alike who may not be familiar with the rules and procedures of the House. This memo exposes and thoroughly debunks Braley’s response as disingenuous with potentially explosive implications.

What began as a possible inadvertent ethics infraction has now evolved into what appears to be an intentional cover-up of an ethics violation by Congressman Braley, which itself could trigger additional House scrutiny and investigation into his Washington office. His disingenuous response raises alarming questions that strike at the heart of Congressman Braley’s trustworthiness.

Congressman Braley now has a clear choice: (1) Braley can do the right thing and admit the infraction by taking one of three actions set forth below, or (2) Braley can choose to proceed with the August 20 event as planned and subject himself and his Washington staff to potentially severe sanctions by the House Ethics Committee for willfully and intentionally violating House ethics rules.

THE COMPLAINT

An official House ethics complaint was filed against Congressman Braley, who currently represents Iowa’s 1st congressional district, on Wednesday, August 8, 2012, by a constituent from Dubuque, Iowa. The complaint, filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics, alleged that Braley violated House ethics rules on August 7, 2012, by using “his taxpayer-funded congressional email account and email distribution list to advertise a ‘workshop’ he plans to host in Cedar Rapids on Monday, August 20, 2012.” Cedar Rapids is outside of Braley’s current congressional district and inside the district in which he is currently campaigning for reelection.

THE RULES

On September 16, 2011, the bipartisan leadership on the Committees on Ethics and House Administration issued a joint memorandum to all Members of Congress entitled “Joint Guidance Regarding Redistricting” (“Redistricting Rules”). The purpose of the Redistricting Rules was to provide written guidance “on what Members may and may not do with official resources where redistricting is concerned,” precisely the situation that Braley finds himself in today.

It is such a longstanding and basic rule in the House of Representatives that Members must not use official House resources for purposes outside of their own district, that the House Administration Committee’s regulatory framework — the Members’ Congressional Handbook — states at the outset that the committee regulates only the use of official House resources “to support the conduct of the official representational duties on behalf of the district from which he or she is elected.”[1]

Redistricting Rules reinforce this fundamental rule: “Members’ Congressional Handbook restricts the use of official resources for activities outside Members’ current districts” and “Members may not use official funds, including the use of staff resources, to conduct ‘town hall’ meetings or other official gatherings outside their districts.”

This fundamental prohibition extends to new geographical areas, such as Cedar Rapids, being added to Members’ current districts as a result of redistricting. “Use of Member office funds and resources for a primary purpose relating exclusively to the new areas is impermissible.”

Members may travel to new geographical areas, but not at taxpayers’ expense and only using campaign resources. “In circumstances where a Member cannot use official resources to host or participate in events in the area to be added to their district by redistricting, they may sponsor events in those areas using campaign staff and resources.”

PRECEDENT

Congressman Braley is not the first Member to run afoul of the Redistricting Rules at issue. On March 2th, 2012, the Denver Post reported a nearly identical case involving a Member in Colorado.[2]

According to the report, in January of this year, the Member used official taxpayer resources in his Washington office to promote and organize an event in a county that is outside of his current congressional district, but which was inside the new district in which he was campaigning for reelection. The Member’s Washington office promoted the event on his official congressional website and a media advisory was released by his congressional staff.

As proof of the ethics infraction, the Post cited to the same straightforward House ethics rule cited above: “Members may not use official funds, including the use of staff resources, to conduct ‘town hall’ meetings or other official gatherings outside their districts.” Unlike Braley, however, the Member did the right thing. He owned up to the mistake and made the correction.

BRALEY’S RESPONSE

On August 9th, 2012, Congressman Braley’s Chief of Staff John Davis, who is himself responsible for managing the day-to-day operations in Braley’s Washington office, stated that the House ethics complaint “has no merit.”[3] His conclusion was based on three justifications that appear to be a disingenuous attempt to cover-up an ethical violation by Congressman Braley, which could itself trigger additional House scrutiny. Notably, Mr. Davis did not cite to a single House rule that authorizes Braley’s conduct.

Defense #1: The Email Was Approved by House Administration

The first justification provided by Mr. Davis for Congressman Braley sponsoring an event outside of his current district and inside the district in which he is campaigning for reelection, was based on the fact that the email in question had been approved by the House Administration Committee — the very committee that explicitly prohibits Members from using “official funds, including the use of staff resources, to conduct ‘town hall’ meetings or other official gatherings outside their districts”.[4]

As proof, Mr. Davis supplied reporters with a “preliminary approval notice” issued by the House Administration Committee on August 3rd, which “authorizes the member to proceed immediately with the printing, production, and/ or distribution of this communication.”[5]

There is one fundamental problem with this justification: The House Administration Committee is not responsible for ensuring compliance with Redistricting Rules — that responsibility falls directly on the shoulders of Congressman Braley.

Members who send mass communications must provide the House Administration Committee with not only an Advisory Opinion Request Form (which Mr. Davis cited), but also a Member’s Franking Certification Form (which Mr. Davis concealed). Most notably, the Member’s Franking Certification Form requires Members to make three general certifications, thereby alleviating the administrative burden from the House Administration Committee staff from verifying those requirements. The third certification requires Members to certify that the communication “will be delivered only within the congressional district from which the Member has been elected.”[6]

Why did Mr. Davis conceal this fact from reporters and the public? Why did Mr. Davis choose to release an irrelevant “preliminary approval notice” as proof of compliance with Redistricting Rules while concealing the Member’s Franking Certification Form which requires Braley to certify in advance that the communication will be delivered only within his current congressional district?

Defense #2: House Ethics Committee “Signed Off” on the Event

The second justification provided by Mr. Davis for Congressman Braley sponsoring an event outside of his current district and inside the district in which he is campaigning for reelection, was that the “House Ethics Committee itself has signed off on these deficit-reduction workshops.”[7]This assertion has potentially explosive consequences given Mr. Davis’s apparent representation that the House Ethics Committee approved the event in question. This claim warrants heightened scrutiny by reporters and the public.

Is Mr. Davis saying that Congressman Braley requested and received an Advisory Opinion from the House Ethics Committee, i.e., the means by which the committee formally “signs off” on ethical questions for Members, on whether it was proper for Congressman Braley to sponsor an event outside of his current district and inside the district in which he is running for reelection?

If the answer is yes, why has Congressman Braley not released the Advisory Opinion? Who did Braley’s staff speak to at the House Ethics Committee and when did they speak to them? What was the question that Braley’s staff asked the House Ethics Committee to review?

If the answer is no, Mr. Davis’ assertion that the House Ethics Committee “signed off” on the event in question was clearly false and a disingenuous attempt to cover-up an ethical violation by Congressman Braley. Under House rules, this could trigger additional House scrutiny and investigation into the conduct of a congressional staff member.

Defense #3: Constituent Convenience

Mr. Davis’s third justification for Congressman Braley to sponsor an event outside of his current district and inside the district in which he is campaigning for reelection was based on Mr. Davis’s assertion that constituents “work and study” outside of Braley’s current district. “As is the case in communities across the state where residents live in smaller counties and work and study in larger, neighboring counties, scores of Rep. Braley’s constituents attend school, work and shop in Linn county,” Davis reportedly said.[8]

This assertion runs directly contrary to House ethics rules and the traditions of the House. As stated by the bipartisan leadership of the Committees on Ethics and House Administration, “Members may not use official funds, including the use of staff resources, to conduct ‘town hall’ meetings or other official gatherings outside their districts.”

In other words, Mr. Davis’s third justification is baseless, false, and would lead to absurd results. If one were to accept Mr. Davis’s view, a Member could host events at taxpayers’ expense in any city across the country so long as a constituent happens to be attending college or temporarily working out-of-state. Either Mr. Davis maintains an alarmingly shallow depth of knowledge about House ethics rules, or he is engaged in a disingenuous attempt to cover-up an ethical violation by  Congressman Braley.

“THE CHOICE”

What began as a possible inadvertent ethics infraction has now evolved into what appears to be an intentional cover-up of an ethics violation by Congressman Braley, which itself could trigger additional House scrutiny and investigation into his Washington office.

With the event in question nearly a week away, Congressman Braley now has a clear choice: (1) Braley can do the right thing and admit his mistake by taking one of three actions set forth below, or (2) Braley can deliberately choose to proceed with the August 20th event as planned and subject himself and his Washington staff to potentially severe sanctions by the House Ethics Committee for willfully and intentionally violating House ethics rules.

Option #1. Cancel the August 20th event, notify the House Ethics Committee of his ethical lapse, and apologize to Iowa taxpayers.

Option #2. Move the August 20th event inside his current district, notify the Committees on Ethics and House Administration of his ethical lapse, and apologize to Iowa taxpayers.

Option #3. Convert the August 20th event into a joint event sponsored by a U.S. Senator from Iowa or Congressman Loebsack (who currently represents Cedar Rapids), and then notify the Committees on Ethics and House Administration of the correction and his ethical lapse, and apologize to Iowa taxpayers.

In addition, pursuant to Rule 3 of the House Ethics Committee Rules, we hereby challenge Congressman Braley to request and publicize an Advisory Opinion in advance of the August 20th event to prove his disingenuous defense to using taxpayer dollars to sponsor a campaign event.

KEY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

1.  Why did Congressman Braley’s Chief of Staff falsely imply to reporters and the public that the House Administration Committee staff is responsible for ensuring compliance with Redistricting Rules when that responsibility rests on the shoulders of Congressman Braley?

2.  Why did Congressman Braley’s Chief of Staff falsely imply to reporters and the public that a “preliminary approval notice” issued by the House Administration Committee has any bearing whatsoever on whether Braley was in compliance with Redistricting Rules?

3.  Why did Congressman Braley’s Chief of Staff conceal the Member’s Franking Certification Form which requires Braley to certify in advance that a mass communication will “be delivered only within the congressional district from which the Member has been elected”?

4.  Why did Congressman Braley’s Chief of Staff assert that the House Ethics Committee “signed off” on the workshops in question but has not released an Advisory Opinion? Who did Braley’s staff speak to at the House Ethics Committee and when did they speak to them? What specifically did Braley’s staff ask the committee to review?

5.  What House rule does Congressman Braley believe authorizes him to sponsor an event outside of his current district and inside the district in which he is campaigning for reelection?


[1] House Committee on Administration, Preface of the Members’ Congressional Handbook, 112th Congress.

[2] “Rep. Tipton violates House rules in promoting campaign event,” Denver Post, Mar. 2, 2012.

[3] Braley chief says complaint without merit,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Aug. 9, 2012.

[4] Joint Guidance Regarding Redistricting, Committees on Ethics and House Administration, Sept. 16, 2011.

[5] “1st District challenger Ben Lange announces complaint against incumbent Bruce Braley,”Des Moines Register, Aug. 9, 2012.

[6] See Franking Commission Website and the Member Office Franking Certification Form.

[7] “Iowa 1st District GOP activist files complaint against Braley,” Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Aug 9., 2012.

[8] “Braley chief says complaint without merit,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Aug 9., 2012.

Cody Brown in an advisor for Lange for Congress

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