JANUARY 29, 2010
Smacking down an independent panel created by the U.S. House of Representatives to investigate member misconduct, the notoriously remiss House Ethics Committee has cleared a California lawmaker who lied to get an illegal out-of-state tax break.
After determining that the Democratic congressman had violated criminal tax law and ethics rules, the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) referred the matter to the official ethics committee, which has become a bit of a joke in recent years for its inaction. This week, in a slap to the OCE, the ethics panel cleared the unscrupulous lawmaker of all wrongdoing.
The case involves Pete Stark, a veteran northern California congressman who happens to be a ranking member of the House tax-writing committee as well as the dean of his state’s congressional delegation. For years, he has claimed a Maryland home—located thousands of miles from the district he’s represented for decades—as his principal residence to get an illegal tax break.
Essentially, Stark lies about where he lives to qualify for an annual $3,853 exemption on a property he owns with his wife in Harwood. Valued at $1.7 million, the 3,600-square-foot waterfront house sits on 6.35 acres and is located about 30 miles east of the U.S. Capitol. To qualify for the state and county homestead tax credit, Maryland homeowners must live in the house at least six months a year and use the address for the legal purpose of voting, obtaining a driver’s license and filing income tax returns. Stark and his wife are registered to vote in the northern California district he represents and both have California driver’s licenses.
When the OCE got wind of the matter, it conducted a probe and fulfilled its duty by referring its findings to the big honchos at the House Ethics Committee. The OCE screens misconduct allegations and forwards only substantial cases to the official ethics panel, which ultimately has the last say. The OCE’s mission is to assist the House in upholding high standards of ethical conduct for its members, officers and staff.
In clearing Stark of any wrongdoing this week the House Ethics Committee, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, claims the OCE treated the lawmaker “inconsistently” with the way it treated four other members of Congress with similar situations whose cases were “properly dismissed.” That makes the matter “dismissed” and “closed,” according to the panel’s lengthy exoneration report.
The ethics committee has for years come under fire for not properly investigating corrupt lawmakers or simply conducting sham probes that usually end in absolution. After all, the investigators are the friends and colleagues of the scrutinized subjects. Often they’re financial beneficiaries. For instance, one influential New York Democrat (Charles Rangel) being investigated has given hefty campaign contributions to the ethics committee members charged with probing him.
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