Republicans quietly pass alarming rule shielding lawmakers from criminal investigations (Details)|
Republicans’ recently passed ethics rule has gone under the media’s radar, but could enable corruption and absolve members of Congress from any crimes.
The new rule states that “Records created, generated, or received by the congressional office of a Member … are exclusively the personal property of the individual Member … and such Member … has control over such records.” It essentially deems the financial documents associated with members of Congress as their own private property, even in the case of expenditures made with taxpayer dollars.
While the rule seems innocuous, the language effectively prohibits the Department of Justice from obtaining those documents with a subpoena, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).
“[I]f a lawmaker is being investigated for misuse of taxpayer funds and law enforcement authorities subpoena her spending records, under this rule, she can assert the privilege to withhold them; they belong to her, not to Congress,” wrote Money in Politics reporter Ashley Balcerzak.
In a phone interview, Balcerzak told US Uncut that the rule is essentially unprecedented, and that it remains unclear how Congress intends to use it. She noted that it was “another tool in their toolbox” to use if the occasion presented itself.
“Let’s say, for instance, a member of Congress is accused of stealing some documents… by turning over those documents, they’re admitting to having it, tying them to the crime which they’re being accused, and could incriminate themselves,” Balcerzak said, adding that how the rule could be applied remains unclear. “We’re basically saying, ‘This is here, and the public should know about it to hold the government to account.'”
Theoretically, since the rules package for the 115th Congress has already been approved, members could be free to spend taxpayer money lavishly on exotic trips and over-the-top interior decor, as was the case of disgraced former Congressman Aaron Schock (R-Illinois). If the Department of Justice demands to see financial records that would prove whether or not a member of Congress did make expenditures outside of its purview, the member could refuse, denying investigators of critical evidence needed to make a case.
At the time, Schock’s attorneys attempted to make this argument on his behalf, saying Schock should be allowed to claim the Fifth Amendment in order to avoid turning over incriminating documents. However, federal prosecutors blasted the defense, calling it “repugnant.”
“They ask this Court to be the first court to recognize that Schock and every other current and future Member of Congress have a Fifth Amendment act-of-production privilege, thereby effectively screening [public or official documents] from public scrutiny. The government respectfully submits that this argument is repugnant to the fundamental principle that no man is above the law and that it should therefore be rejected.”
The rule is already in effect, as the House rules package was passed last week.
Tom Cahill is a writer for US Uncut based in the Pacific Northwest. He specializes in coverage of political, economic, and environmental news. You can contact him via email at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook.