By Alexandra Wilcox
In the recent wave of resignations and reports of impropriety on Capitol Hill, a congressional watchdog is making it easier to track and find ethics investigations targeting members of Congress.
Govtrack.us, a free website focused on following congressional legislation and lawmakers, has started compiling past and current congressional ethics investigations and other allegations of political malpractice against congress members. Its Congressional Misconduct database pulls from Senate and House documents, news reports, and other public records to build a comprehensive list of sitting and former members who may have violated ethical norms, criminal law—or both.
The database goes back as far as 10 years and is updated as soon as a new scandal breaks out. Recent entries include the 2016-2017 investigation into Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX). The Republican congressman had offered an amendment to a transportation reauthorization bill that exempted car dealerships—like the one he owns—that prohibited renting out cars that were named in safety recalls. House rules prohibit members from voting on legislation in which they have a “direct personal or pecuniary interest.” However, while the House Ethics Committee found that Williams did stand to benefit, his sponsorship of the amendment did not create a “reasonable inference of improper conduct” because he did not draft or conceive the amendment himself, among other reasons. The committee ended the investigation in August 2017, chalking the amendment up to falling under an “area where mistakes are made.”
The Govtrack.us database also frequently utilizes and links to primary source records and official congressional correspondence. For example, in its entry for former Rep. Aaron Schock’s 2012 investigation over his alleged solicitation of campaign contributions that exceeded legal limits, Govtrack includes reports, press releases and other records from congressional committees. Of course, the 2012 investigation was before Schock’s 2015 resignation over similar allegations, including famously decorating his Downton Abbey-inspired congressional office with free services from an interior designer. The report from the Chairman of the House Ethics Committee, however, recommended Schock be investigated for further review, and served as a precursor in his subsequent indictment on corruption charges. His trial for that was slated to start January 2018 but has not yet been rescheduled.
Alexandra Wilcox is a senior researcher who has provided VR Research's political and corporate clients with strategic public records research since 2011. She is a former journalist.