Politics & Government

Two Kentucky lawmakers say they broke from GOP pack on ethics vote

Former U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, shown outside the Capitol in 2015, resigned after the Office of Congressional Ethics issued a critical report finding that he allowed his office to improperly help his wife, a lobbyist. Whitfield’s successor, James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, voted against a measure this week that would have gutted the ethics office.
Former U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, shown outside the Capitol in 2015, resigned after the Office of Congressional Ethics issued a critical report finding that he allowed his office to improperly help his wife, a lobbyist. Whitfield’s successor, James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, voted against a measure this week that would have gutted the ethics office. MCT

At least two of Kentucky’s Republican lawmakers say they broke ranks Monday night and voted against a proposal to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

U.S. Reps. Andy Barr of Lexington and James Comer of Tompkinsville told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday that they believe any changes to the ethics office should be made transparently and with bipartisan support. By contrast, Monday’s surprise vote on a package of House rules was conducted in secret, with only members of the GOP majority participating.

U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers of Somerset, Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green and Thomas Massie of Vanceburg did not respond to calls and emails asking about their vote on the ethics office. CNN quoted Rogers as saying that he backed the proposal, which passed by a secret vote of 119 to 74, because there were “numerous examples” of members “who were falsely accused by this group who had to spend a fortune to get their good name restored so I think there’s been an abuse.”

Once word of the proposal spread Tuesday, intense criticism forced House Republicans to drop their plans for now.

“I knew it would be a public relations disaster, and it was,” Comer said. “I’d probably not be in Congress today without the current ethics process, if you go back and look at my predecessor.”

Voters in Western Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District last year chose Comer to replace Ed Whitfield, a 22-year incumbent who resigned after the Office of Congressional Ethics issued a report criticizing him for allowing his House office to improperly help his wife, a Washington lobbyist.

Following the office’s report, the House Ethics Committee last year unanimously found that Whitfield “failed to prohibit lobbying contacts between his staff and his wife.”

Comer said he agrees with GOP colleagues that some changes should be made to the ethics process, such as the elimination of anonymous complaints. Lawmakers have the right to face their accusers, and the public has the right to know if a complaint has been filed with someone who has a political ax to grind, Comer said.

However, any changes should be publicly vetted by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Comer said.

Likewise, Barr spokesman Rick VanMeter said: “Congressman Barr voted against the amendment last night. While he believes that reforms should be made to uphold the highest standards of ethics for members of Congress and to ensure due process for those members facing complaints, he believes that these reforms should be considered by the Ethics Committee on a bipartisan basis, not as an amendment to the House Rules.”

As approved Monday, the House Republican proposal would have required the ethics office to turn over criminal allegations against members of Congress to the House Ethics Committee, run entirely by lawmakers, or a federal law enforcement agency. The House Ethics Committee would have had the power to stop any investigation by the ethics office at any point, and the ethics office would not have been allowed to issue public statements about any matters.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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