Whether investigating a member of Congress engaged in campaign finance fraud or looking into a lavish junket abroad attended by nine lawmakers, paid for by a host country’s state-owned oil company, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is the U.S. House of Representatives’ independent watchdog.
But as 2017 began, the OCE was nearly shuttered. In early January of this year, before then-President-elect Donald Trump formally assumed office, House Republicans pushed to erode the OCE’s autonomy, but drew rebuke from grassroots organizations, some lawmakers, and even Trump himself. On Twitter, Trump urged the representatives to reconsider their priorities. The lawmakers reversed course and the proposal was scrapped.
Established by House resolution in 2008, the OCE is a non-partisan, independent office tasked with aiding the U.S. House of Representatives in upholding ethical standards by investigating allegations of misconduct against members, staff, or officers of the House. With a staff of 10 and a budget of $1.6 million, the office is the sole independent enforcer of ethics in Congress.
“One of the great things about this job is the diversity of issues that we come across,” said Helen Eisner, an Investigative Counsel at OCE and a 2012 graduate of Penn Law. “The more typical cases we deal with are in traditional areas of ethics law that many people think of: conflict of interest, gifts, issues of foreign travel, financial disclosures. But our work can touch on many different subjects, like campaign finance, misconduct involving members of Congress, or employment law, disputes that are outside of that typical scope of gifts and financial disclosure.”
What does an OCE investigation entail? “Sometimes you are looking at original documents or raw data trying to piece together the story of what really happened in a case,” Eisner said. “Writing skills are critical in the job because you are often translating complex evidentiary findings into a report that may ultimately become public. Analytical skills are important, not just to understand the law, but to review and make sense of all the relevant facts and evidence.
“Finally, interview skills are a big part of the work,” she added. “Knowing the right questions to ask and how to interact with witnesses is something I’m always focused on.”
The nature of her work varies. “Some days I am behind a desk conducting research or writing reports, other days I am on the road interviewing witnesses.” Some cases may involve just a few witnesses, other cases dozens. “It depends on the facts,” she explained, “and I’m always reaching out to third parties, sometimes talking with people in politics but also people who aren’t connected in any way to Washington, D.C., that is, private citizens, people in business. Witnesses come in all shapes and sizes.”
Before assuming her role of Investigative Counsel at OCE, Eisner was an Attorney Advisor for the executive branch’s Office of Government Ethics. She began her career at Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, D.C.
Eisner’s path to becoming an investigator and ethics lawyer began at Penn Law, as a second-year student when she enrolled in Political Law taught by Kedric Payne, a 2001 Penn Law graduate and at the time the Deputy Chief Counsel at the OCE. “I loved the class and he became a mentor to me,” she said of Payne. “My 3L year, I asked him if it would be a possibility to come down to Washington and intern at the office. He connected me to the Chief Counsel there, Omar Ashmawy.”
Then, Eisner contacted Professor Louis Rulli, the director of Penn Law’s Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies. Rulli also directs the Legislative Clinic, which is unique among law schools in that students take a semester-long seminar that also involves traveling to Washington, D.C. twice a week to work on Capitol Hill. However, at the time, students typically worked on House or Senate committees.
“I asked Professor Rulli if I would be able to participate in the internship as a part of the Legislative Clinic. It’s a non-traditional path, it’s rare for me even now, talking to law students, to come across somebody who wants to do investigative work and really has that opportunity during law school. But he said, okay, we can work with that, we’ll let this be a part of the Clinic, and they adapted the curriculum to make sure it worked for this opportunity.”
Interning at the OCE was a hands-on experience, Eisner recalled. “It’s such a small office and I directly jumped into cases — I had just taken Kedric’s class and I was able to apply all of the topics that we’d talked about directly to important cases that were live and ongoing.”
She added: “Without the Legislative Clinic, I wouldn’t have been able to get the class credit and come down here and have that experience, and if I hadn’t been able to do that, I wouldn’t have been set up for my career here later on.”
The OCE is overseen by a bi-partisan board of eight comprised of private citizens, not members of Congress. Four are appointed by the Speaker of the House and four are appointed by the Democratic Minority Leader. In a typical case, the board authorizes the preliminary review stage, a 30-day period where the OCE’s non-partisan investigators gather information, collect evidence, and reach out to witnesses.
The board may authorize a second phase of the review process, which lasts for 45 days with the option for a 14-day extension. After that, investigators gather information into a report, a presentation of all the evidence and the facts relevant to the case, as well as the applicable legal standards. The board determines whether a violation of House rules, standards of conduct, criminal law, or other federal statutes may have occurred.
In approximately 60 percent of OCE reviews, the OCE’s board does not find that a violation may have occurred. However, when the board decides there is a substantial reason to believe that there has been a violation, they refer a case to the Committee on Ethics, and the Committee makes the ultimate finding. The Committee on Ethics is the only House body that can issue sanctions or punishment, which include issuing letters of reprimand or letters of reproval, or conducting further investigations.
“When the board decides that there is a substantial reason to believe, the report we have produced, which is often a lengthy 20-, 30-, or 50-page report with exhibits and the full scope of evidence that we found, will eventually become public,” Eisner said.
She noted that the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff sparked a movement for greater transparency and accountability in the congressional ethics process, which helped lead to the creation of the OCE.
The OCE doesn’t have a statute of limitations, but it does have a jurisdictional limit which prevents the office from looking at any allegations or any misconduct that occurred prior to March 11, 2008, when the OCE was created.
“There’s no doubt this is tough work, but our staff is committed to the core principles of accuracy, fairness, and professionalism, and Helen has exemplified these traits each day since joining the OCE,” said Omar Ashmawy, staff director and chief counsel of the OCE, who is teaching Political Law at Penn this semester. “Our connection to Penn Law is significant and sustained. One of our first hires, Kedric Payne, was both an alumnus and an adjunct professor at the Law School. And this fall semester, I look forward to continuing the tradition by teaching Kedric’s course, Political Law, something that I hope will deepen our connections to the mutual benefit of both institutions.”
“Helen’s work at the OCE is an inspiration for our students interested in pursuing careers in government, ethics law, and public integrity,” said Neta Borshansky, director of the Leo Model Foundation Government Service and Public Affairs Initiative at Penn Law. “Her career path also serves as an excellent example of the unique way Penn Law prepares its students for fulfilling public service employment.”
Penn Law’s strong connections to the OCE, along with Eisner’s desire to serve in government as an investigator, helped her land a permanent role at the office.
“I’ve got a lot of Penn in my blood,” Eisner said. “My parents went to Penn, I’m a Philadelphia native, so growing up Penn was a big part of my life. It will be exciting to help any other students who are looking to work here or get into this field. I’d definitely encourage students who are involved to take relevant classes, look into internships similar to working at the OCE, or work elsewhere in the government in ethics roles.”