Campaign shenanigans are top targets for Office of Congressional Ethics

Potential political violations by House members, employees account for nearly half of investigations

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Misusing taxpayer money? Nope.

Luxuriating on special interest-funded junkets? Sorry.

Accepting ethically questionable gifts? Close, but no tobacco industry-bestowed cigar.

Since early 2009, nearly half of the Office of Congressional Ethics' investigations into U.S. House members and staff involve election activity such as potential campaign finance violations, according to a new report the independent office published this week.

The Office of Congressional Ethics — the U.S. House's independent, internal watchdog — has been much less likely to investigate members' and their staff's official activities.

Shenanigans involving travel (17 percent), outside employment and income (11 percent), gifts (8 percent), official allowances (6 percent), financial disclosure (3 percent) and "other" (9 percent) account for the rest of the office's 137 investigations since early 2009, the report shows.

The focus on election activity comes at a time when the frequently gridlocked Federal Election Commission, the government agency tasked with policing campaign matters, is slapping political committees with fewer and fewer penalties.

Congress grants the Office of Congressional Ethics the jurisdiction to investigate any alleged violation of a "law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct."

But it can't dole out penalties.

Instead, it refers the results of some investigations to the House Committee on Ethics, which in turn may conduct its own investigations, and in rare cases, vote to recommend punishments to the full U.S. House.

Notable campaign finance-related investigations initiated by the Office of Congressional Ethics include those involving Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who the House ultimately censured, and Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who decided not to seek re-election amid multiple investigations.

The saga of Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., is another recent example, as is a super PAC-related flap involving Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill.   

In all, about one-third of Office of Congressional Ethics investigations are referred to the House Committee on Ethics, the office said.