WASHINGTON — The secretive U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics — tasked with confidentially investigating allegations of misconduct by its own members and staff — hasn’t formally punished anyone in at least 16 years, a Raw Story analysis of congressional records indicates.
Since 2007, the Senate Ethics Committee has received 1,523 complaints alleging violations of Senate rules. In exactly zero cases did it vote to issue a “disciplinary sanction” — the most damning form of punishment against a wayward senator.
During this time, the six-member, bipartisan body is similarly 0-for-204 in issuing disciplinary sanctions even after finding enough evidence to launch a “preliminary inquiry” into an alleged misdeed, according to Raw Story’s analysis.
During 2022 alone, the Senate Ethics Committee received 92 complaints, and of those, it conducted a preliminary investigation into 22 of them. None of those investigations resulted in a disciplinary sanction.
But it’s not as if the Senate has lacked ethical or legal scandals of late.
For example, in 2020, nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), as well as three Republican senators no longer in office, for suspicions they violated insider trading laws with their pre-pandemic personal stock trades.
The Campaign Legal Center, another nonprofit watchdog, in 2021 accused Sens. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Rand Paul (R-KY) of failing to properly disclose millions of dollars worth of stock trades.
Meanwhile, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) faced an ethics complaint, filed in 2021 by seven Democratic senators, regarding the two lawmakers’ role in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — and whether their words and actions that day “lent legitimacy to the mob’s cause and made future violence more likely.”
But the Senate’s chummy and clubby reputation remains largely intact even amid an age of hyperpartisanship. And that’s an underlying reason for why none of these recent Senate ethics cases — or any others — go particularly far, said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government affairs manager for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.
“The twin mandates of partisanship and collegiality mean that members on the two ethics committees are loathe to go after other members for potential violations or scandals because that same individual might be the one you need to cosponsor your bill or vote in favor of something you are pushing for,” Hedtler-Gaudette said. “In this era of heightened polarization and thin majorities in both chambers, this tendency toward inaction and looking the other way becomes even more pernicious.”
‘I’M RESTRAINING MYSELF’
Senate Ethics Committee proceedings are generally private and opaque.
Rarely does the body’s members comment on their work.
Public transparency of any sort is minimal, when it exists at all.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Raw Story this month asked Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Chris Coons (D-DE) about why his committee has for years failed to formally sanction anyone in the Senate.
After listening to the question as we walked through the U.S. Capitol, his face soured.
“You know I can’t comment on that,” Coons replied.
He paused for a moment.
“I also …” Coons continued, starting to launch into what sounded like a defense of his committee.
Then he stopped.
“Well, I’m restraining myself. I cannot comment,” Coons said.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) proved somewhat less restrained when asked about his nearly 15-year tenure on the Senate Ethics Committee.
When Raw Story showed Risch documents on a phone that detailed what the committee had done — and not done — over the years, the senator took the phone in his hands and started scrolling through his committee’s findings, explaining them point by point as he went.
“We have a very clear designation of what our jurisdiction is. Generally, something is started by a complaint,” Risch explained. “We have a process for doing that. They’re triaged. There’s ones that are just absolute nonsense. And then there are serious ones. And they’re treated appropriately for the seriousness of the accusation.”
Taken on balance, “most of the stuff we get is not stuff that is huge,” although a few matters are indeed serious and require careful consideration. At one point during the past 16 years — “the worst case I was ever involved in,” Risch said — the senator under investigation “resigned immediately prior to us taking the action we were going to take, and that removes all jurisdiction for us.”
While Risch did not name names, he almost certainly referred to the case of former Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), who resigned in 2011 amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into alleged conflicts-of-interest and improper payments related to an extramarital affair with an aide.
Risch argued that the Senate Ethics Committee is purposefully deliberative and void of partisanship.
“If you walked into that meeting and saw us deliberating over an issue that involved one of our colleagues, you would not know who were Democrats and who are Republicans, and you would not know whether the person being talked about was a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. “It is incredibly nonpartisan.”
Risch also pointed out that the Senate Ethics Committee’s responsibilities go well beyond conducting investigations and meting out reprimands.
Each year, the committee and its staff, he noted, conduct dozens of briefings, training sessions and seminars on topics ranging from campaign finance to personal financial disclosures. The committee also issues hundreds of ethics advisory letters — 778 in 2022 alone — in response for requests for formal guidance on matters involving gift acceptance and potential conflicts-of-interest.
The committee’s staff processed an additional 8,966 phone calls and emails “for ethics advice and guidance,” its 2022 annual report states.
“We believe our job is to keep people from going off the rails,” Risch said. “When we see an issue that is brewing, we will put out a notification to senators saying, ‘hey, look this stuff over. That is a big part of our job.”
The Senate Ethics Committee staff did not respond to requests seeking interviews with the committees’ four other members: Sens. James Lankford (R-OK), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Brian Schatz (D-HI).
COMMIES, GRIFT AND SEX
Of the 1,523 complaints received from 2007 through 2022, the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the majority of them for what it describes in annual summary reports as a lack of “sufficient facts” or “subject matter jurisdiction”.
Of the 204 matters that did prompt the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a “preliminary inquiry,” the committee scuttled almost all of them for one reason or another, including a “lack of substantial merit,” or because of the “inadvertent,” “technical” or “otherwise of a de minimis nature” of the alleged transgression.
Only in seven cases since 2007 did the Senate Ethics Committee issue what amounts to a strongly worded letter — five of them released publicly, two issued privately — admonishing senators for actions committee members deemed illegal, unethical or against “applicable standards of conduct.”
The most recent letter dropped in 2018, when the Senate Ethics Committee scolded Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) for accepting improperly disclosed gifts from friend and business associate Salomon Melgen, then using his clout as a senator to “advance Dr. Melgen’s personal and business interests” over the course of several years.
Former Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Roland Burris (D-IL), Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Larry Craig (R-ID) also received such letters since the late 2000s.
These letters of admonition, per Senate rules, “shall not be considered discipline.”
And they should not be confused with a “disciplinary sanction” — a formalized kind of punishment the Senate Ethics Committee hasn’t recommended in years.
Such sanctions constitute any of several serious reprimands, including “expulsion, censure, payment of restitution, recommendation to a member’s party conference regarding the Member’s seniority or positions of responsibility, or a combination of these,” according to the Senate Ethics Committee’s Rules of Procedure.
Senate officers or employees could face “dismissal, suspension, payment of restitution, or a combination of these.”
Only nine times in U.S. history has the Senate issued a censure — a “formal statement of disapproval in the form of a resolution that is adopted by majority vote” of the full Senate — against one of its members. (The U.S. House of Representatives has censured or reprimanded two of its members within the past three years.)
The most recent Senate censure came in 1990, when the Senate voted 96-0 to formally denounce Sen. David Durenberger (R-MN) for “unethical conduct in personal business dealings, Senate reimbursements, and using campaign contributions for personal use,” per Senate records.
The 1954 censure of anti-communism crusader Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, is perhaps the most notable of all.
Not since the Civil War years of the early 1860s has the Senate expelled one of its own, although several senators since have either survived expulsion attempts or resigned — a surefire way to stop a Senate ethics investigation — before their colleagues voted to remove them.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) resigned his seat in 2017 before the Senate Ethics Committee could complete its investigation of him.Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Among the latter: Then-Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) in 2017 invited a Senate ethics investigation after a radio broadcaster accused him of groping and forcibly kissing her. Franken resigned weeks later before a Senate ethics investigation ever hit stride — although he later expressed regret for giving up his elected office.
Former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) quit the Senate in 1995 after facing accusations as early as 1992 that he repeatedly sexually harassed women.
Senate ethics justice, as the Packwood saga in particular instructs, can be notoriously slow.
For Cruz and Hawley, the Jan. 6-related ethics complaint against them appears to still be pending more than two years after Senate Democrats filed it, Insider reported earlier this year.
That could be good news for senators who face tough re-elections and would rather eschew attention that, for example, could offer political rivals rich fodder for attack ads and candidate debate barbs.
Take Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ).
Earlier this month, the Democrat-turned-independent became the target of an ethics complaint asking for an investigation into whether she required her Senate office staff members to perform personal errands for her.
Sinema faces a re-election race in 2024 that’s likely to feature both a Republican and Democratic general election challenger, and both would assuredly delight in any negative result against Sinema stemming from a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.
Risch, the senator from Idaho, said the Senate Ethics Committee’s methodical process will serve future cases well.
“It’s done the way it’s done, and it’s worked really well,” he said, while acknowledging that a position on the Senate Ethics Committee is “not the one you seek out — believe me.”