Auto-dealing congressman draws complaint

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams offered amendment that would help his industry

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Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, on Capitol Hill in September 2013.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

A watchdog group has called for the investigation of the actions of an auto-dealing congressman who proposed an amendment that would exempt his industry from a safety requirement.

The amendment, which passed the House of Representatives, was offered just before midnight on Nov. 11. It allows automobile dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they are subject to safety recalls. Rental car companies, meanwhile, don’t get the same treatment under the proposed law.

It was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, a self-described “second-generation auto dealer.”

The Campaign Legal Center in a letter sent Monday urged the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics to review Williams’ actions and also recommended changes to clarify House rules concerning recusal and conflicts of interest by members.

The request was prompted by a Center for Public Integrity report posted last week. The story was also posted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Texas Tribune.

“The specific actions of Rep. Williams must be reviewed for compliance with current rules, but even if he did clear his amendment with the Ethics Committee, his actions are a prime example of why the current rules are both too weak and in need of further clarification,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director in a press release.

An email to Williams’ press aide was not immediately returned.

The rental car provision in the legislation, which is also in the Senate bill, was spurred by the deaths of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, ages 24 and 20. The two sisters were killed in 2004 while driving a rented, recalled vehicle that caught fire and crashed head-on into a semi, according to consumer groups that have backed the rental car proposal.

Williams’ amendment would make the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision exists in the Senate bill.

Williams is chairman of Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM SRT in Weatherford. In his remarks on the House floor, Williams said the bill was bad for small businesses.

“Vehicles would be grounded for weeks or months for such minor compliance matters as an airbag warning sticker that might peel off the sun visor or an incorrect phone number printed in the owner’s manual,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California didn’t agree with that reasoning, however.

“This is ridiculous. NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) does not issue frivolous recalls,” she said. “All safety recalls pose serious safety risks and should be fixed as soon as possible.”

Williams, in a statement released after publication of the original story said "members should be able to use their business knowledge in their jobs on Capitol Hill.”

Generally speaking, the House Code of Conduct prohibits a member from taking an official action that may benefit his or her financial interest.

The House ethics manual states that “whenever a member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect his or her personal financial interests,” he or she should contact the House Ethics Committee for guidance.

It’s not clear whether Williams did that or not.

There are a number of ways a formal investigation by the House Ethics Committee can get under way. The committee can act on its own, a member can request an investigation, or sign on to a complaint from a non-member, or the complaint can come from the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, non-partisan board.

A spokesman for the committee declined comment.

Members of the House and Senate have formed a conference committee to hammer out differences between the transportation bills, including the Williams amendment. Its status is unclear at the moment, calls to the House Transportation Committee were not immediately returned.

The hope is a final transportation bill will be sent to the desk of President Barack Obama by Dec. 4.

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