WASHINGTON - Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight Chairman Barry Loudermilk (GA-11) delivered opening remarks at today's hearing on the Office of Congressional Ethics. 

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Subcommittee Chairman Loudermilk's Opening Remarks:

Thank you, Ranking Member Torres, members of the subcommittee, and our witnesses for joining us for today’s important hearing – the first-ever congressional hearing with the Office of Congressional Ethics. 

The Office of Congressional Ethics – or OCE – was established in 2008 during Nancy Pelosi’s first speakership.  

It was created to independently review allegations of misconduct against House members, officers, and staff. 

OCE is often conflated and confused with the Ethics Committee, but the two are very different entities. 

First, while they can intake and review allegations of misconduct brought forward by the public, OCE has no disciplinary authority.  

Its job is simply to make referrals to the Ethics Committee when it deems appropriate. 

However, there is little to no transparency regarding which cases OCE decides to open. In the past 10 years, only half of the cases OCE opened were then referred to the Ethics Committee. 

Second, OCE referrals carry no extra weight, meaning the Ethics Committee doesn’t have to consider any of OCE’s referrals. 

Third, if the Ethics Committee does decide to investigate a complaint that OCE refers, the Committee starts from scratch and does not even use any of OCE’s materials. 

Despite having “Congress” in its name, OCE only has jurisdiction to investigate the House of Representatives.  

The Senate does not have a corresponding entity. 

This calls into question: If the Senate doesn’t need a similar entity, what value does OCE add to transparency and accountability that the House Ethics Committee doesn’t already provide? If it’s not meeting its intended purpose, what reforms must be made to ensure there is effective and nonpartisan accountability? 

Let me be clear—I support transparency and accountability. I believe all of Congress should be held to the highest ethical standards. But I also have confidence in my colleagues on the Ethics Committee. 

In the 15 years of its existence, OCE hasn’t had any oversight from the committees of jurisdiction. 

The goal of this hearing is to begin establishing formal oversight of the office, examine if they are achieving their intended purpose, and identify if reforms are necessary. 

Unfortunately, we must also ask tough questions about some of OCE’s current practices and recent controversies that have caused both Republicans and Democrats to lose trust in the office. 

While initially designed to field complaints from the public to the Ethics Committee, in practice, political groups have weaponized the office to file complaints as a way of generating negative headlines, regardless of the merits of the complaint, to achieve a desired political outcome. 

This has turned the office into a political tool rather than an accountability measure. 

There have been allegations that OCE itself is leaking reports to the press before being made public. 

In 2015, Politico Magazine wrote a story about how OCE leaked a confidential report to The Washington Post and Politico.  

Politico Magazine wrote that OCE leaked the report because the Ethics Committee told them to cease the investigation and to refer the matter to the Committee instead. 

That is well within the Ethic Committee’s power to do. 

The allegation that OCE would then turn around and undermine the investigation by leaking to the press is highly concerning. 

With a current annual budget of over $1.7 million, the American people deserve to know that the office is being used as intended and not for political purposes.

And finally, we must bring transparency and accountability to OCE leadership. 

OCE Staff Director and Chief Counsel, Omar Ashmawy, is tasked as Congress’s “ethical watchdog,” yet has faced several allegations of unethical behavior himself, including allegations of harassment, intimidation, and improper use of official resources.  

Mr. Ashmawy, I’d like to give you the opportunity, in today's hearing, to address these allegations, especially in light of your refusal to provide the committee with your own written testimony for today’s hearing, opting to instead co-sign with the Co-Chairs of the Board. 

May I remind you that you were invited here to give your perspective as the head staffer of the office and give us an update on how the office is operating. 

Further, I’d like to address an incident involving alcohol this past September. 

Substance abuse is an issue impacting Americans across the country, and I encourage all who need help to seek it. There is no shame in asking for help. 

However, Mr. Ashmawy is in a position to pass judgement on the behaviors of members, officers and staff.  

So I find it concerning that Mr. Ashmawy was arrested for driving under the influence after he hit a stop sign, two parked cars, and crashed into the front porch of a house.  

He admitted to drinking and driving, and was caught on video trying to pay the resident to not report the incident to law enforcement. 

Despite repeated issues with unethical behavior, the Board has continued to reappoint Mr. Ashmawy to his position. 

So, we have a lot to dive into today.  

I look forward to bringing accountability and transparency to an office that has historically operated in the dark.