Paul Broun’s House ethics probe could return if he wins in November

When former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun left Congress at the end of 2014, a House Ethics Committee investigation looking into his alleged misuse of taxpayer funds for political purposes dissipated.

But with the Republican now running for Georgia's 9th Congressional District seat, there's a chance he could return to Capitol Hill next year. And if voters send him back to Washington, his ethics case could be revived.

Ethics Committee investigations generally die when a member of Congress leaves office. The panel essentially washed its hands of its inquiry into Broun when he exited in late 2014, saying it didn't have jurisdiction moving forward.

That could all change in January.

Ethics Committee rules stipulate that the last six years fall within what is essentially its statute of limitations for investigating sitting members of Congress.

If Broun wins the 9th District race and takes office in January 2017, that means the House Ethics Committee can look into complaints of wrongdoing for activities that occurred as far back as 2011. Since Broun’s alleged misconduct occurred in the lead-up to his 2014 Senate race, it would be fair game for ethics investigators.

Ethics experts say there’s little modern precedent of a lawmaker under investigation departing Congress and then returning to office, but it’s possible committee leaders could choose to reopen their inquiry should Broun go back to Washington.

“If the committee thinks someone could be getting away with something, then I don’t think they’re going to let it happen,” said Robert Walker, a lawyer at the firm Wiley Rein who was a top aide on both the House and Senate ethics panels. “The fact that someone leaves and comes back doesn’t wipe the slate clean. If they thought there was reason enough to inquire before, I think they will think there’s reason enough to inquire now.”

The idea was initially reported by the Washington-based publication Roll Call.

Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, said the discretion would lie with the 10 lawmakers on the House Ethics Committee, the membership of which is split evenly by Republicans and Democrats and is supposed to act in a nonpartisan manner. She said the panel, however, is often hesitant to move forward on investigations of its House colleagues.

“They have this sense that people who live in glass houses don’t throw stones,” she said. “There is almost always a preference that the person in question find a way to get out of Congress.”

Committee inquiry

The House Ethics Committee began looking into Broun's behavior in autumn 2014 after congressional investigators said there was substantial evidence the Republican misused more than $43,000 in taxpayer money when he hired Republican strategist and debate coach Brett O'Donnell in 2012 to advise his Senate campaign.

Lawmakers can’t use the taxpayers’ money provided for staffing their congressional offices for campaign purposes, including the hiring of outside consultants.

The Ethics panel began looking into the matter but ran out of time and didn't take action before Broun left Congress in late 2014 after losing the Republican primary to fill Saxby Chambliss' Senate seat.

Broun has consistently maintained that he’s done nothing illegal or unethical throughout the entire process.

“An anonymous ethics complaint started the investigation. I was beyond cooperative the entire time. I waived my Congressional immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause, providing access to my office and home, and even allowed my computer to be taken and examined for three days. I did this all completely voluntarily,” Broun said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It’s been two years. No charges were pressed, and no indictments passed down. The investigation was a political witch hunt, which is why it never went anywhere and never will,” the statement continued.

The investigation is already a campaign issue for Broun. The campaign of his primary opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, highlighted the issue in its first radio ad attacking Broun earlier this month.

Broun called the criticism from Collins’ camp “nasty” and “false.”

“He wants to distract Georgians from his voting record and hide the fact that he hasn’t been representing the interests of the people of the 9th District,” Broun said of Collins.

Federal investigation

Broun’s ethics inquiry has not been bound to Capitol Hill.

In September, O’Donnell pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to ethics investigators in 2014 about his contractual relationship with Broun. He admitted to federal prosecutors that he was being paid by taxpayers to advise Broun’s election efforts.

As of last fall, a federal grand jury in Macon had been meeting for months to hear allegations of Broun's actions, an investigation that also led to questions about Broun's successor in the House, Jody Hice. The Monroe Republican has strongly denied any improper conduct.

Since grand juries meet in secret, it’s unclear what charges if any investigators are pursuing and how seriously.

A Justice Department spokesman said it is department policy to neither confirm nor deny whether there is a criminal investigation ongoing.

Walker, the former senior ethics aide in the House and Senate, said regardless of what happens with a possible Justice Department investigation, Ethics Committee leaders could choose to forge ahead should Broun return to Congress. Since the panel looks at House rules and standards of conduct, which are far broader than the criminal offenses being targeted by the Justice Department, there are other issues that could be investigated.

“There are all sorts of ways in which an ethics inquiry could well go on and proceed and be taken on again even if the criminal investigation had ended or was not being pursued,” Walker said.

A senior House Ethics staffer had no comment.

McGehee, from the Campaign Legal Center, said Broun’s case would be an important one for the Ethics Committee to consider since it would be “precedent-setting.” Regardless, she said she expects that if the panel finds grounds for wrongdoing, the most severe punishment it would dole out — if one at all — would be akin to a “slap on the wrist.”

“I think more than likely what you would simply see is the Ethics Committee saying this is improper and either he should repay the cost or don’t do this again,” she said.