Car dealer-congressman subject of ethics probe

Republican Rep. Roger Williams submitted amendment that would benefit his business

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Roger Williams, R-Texas, arriving on Capitol Hill in Washington in November 2012.

Charles Dharapak/AP

The House Ethics Committee has revealed it is investigating the conduct of U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, a Weatherford car dealer who authored an amendment that would have exempted his industry from a safety requirement and benefited his own business.

Williams’ apparent conflict of interest was first reported by the Center for Public Integrity in November and led to a formal complaint being filed by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C. legal watchdog.

In a brief press release, the House Ethics Committee announced Monday that it had “decided to extend the matter regarding” Williams, which was “transmitted to the committee by the Office of Congressional Ethics on May 13, 2016.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics is a nonpartisan organization that vets complaints against members. The press release revealed for the first time publicly that the claims of misconduct leveled against Williams were under review by the House Ethics Committee.

The committee will announce its “course of action” on or before Aug. 11.

The amendment was proposed as part of a broader transportation bill. Offered just before midnight on Nov. 11, 2015, it would have allowed automobile dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they were subject to safety recalls. Rental car companies, meanwhile, wouldn’t get the same treatment. The measure passed the House of Representatives but after the Center wrote about it, the Williams proposal died in the conference process between the House and the Senate.

In the complaint, the Campaign Legal Center asked for a review and also recommended changes to clarify House rules concerning recusal and conflicts of interest by members.

The House Code of Conduct generally prohibits a member from taking an official action that may benefit his or her financial interest. Officially, a member cannot receive compensation where “the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from the position of such individual in Congress.”

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 sought such guidance. Vince Zito, Williams’ spokesman, did not return a call seeking comment nor did he respond to an email asking whether Williams sought such a review.

The rental car provision in the legislation, which was also in the Senate version, 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 have made the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision existed 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.”

Though Williams’ amendment did not make it into law, a House-Senate conference committee decided that rather than exempting auto dealers from the requirement, it would exempt rental fleets with 35 or fewer cars. That provision was included in the larger transportation bill and signed into law in December.

Williams has not responded directly to requests for comment from the Center, but issued a statement to the McClatchy news service Monday via Zito.

Williams, he said, offered the amendment “precisely because of his extensive knowledge and experience in the automotive industry and because he chose to apply some common sense to legislation that was specifically intended to regulate rental car companies.”

He continued: “Long-standing House precedents have not found that members are required to abstain themselves from legislation that affects a large class of individuals and businesses.”

A spokesman for the House Ethics Committee declined comment. Punishment for violating House rules can include a formal reprimand, censure or even expulsion. Each action would require a vote of the full House.

Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a group that advocates for vehicle safety, was highly critical of Williams’ conduct. Shahan said she hopes the news of the committee’s review “sends a message that lawmakers should be representing the public and not their own personal interests."

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