House Ethics Committee scolds, doesn't punish Roger Williams

Car-dealing Texas congressman faced conflict-of-interest investigation

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The House Ethics Committee has decided not to reprimand Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, in regard to questions raised over whether his automobile dealership would benefit financially from an amendment he introduced in 2015.

The committee’s leaders said in a report issued Tuesday, however, that Williams should have consulted with the panel first to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

A 2015 Center for Public Integrity story brought to light a provision proffered by Williams that allowed car dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they are subject to safety recalls. Williams owns the Roger Williams Auto Mall in Weatherford, Texas. The amendment did not become law.

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.

Williams did not consult with the committee first. 

In a statement, Williams said he knew he would be cleared of wrongdoing.

“I have extensive knowledge and experience in running a small business and I chose to apply some common sense to legislation that was overreaching with regulations," Williams said. "This bill would have resulted in unintended consequences that would punish small business owners, employees and consumers."

In deciding not to take action against Williams, the committee said that “the totality of the circumstances” surrounding his actions “did not create a reasonable inference of improper conduct.”

But the committee also noted that Williams might have avoided problems had he consulted with the panel first.

“In this case, while the Committee would have advised Representative Williams that he was not prohibited from introducing the Williams Amendment, it might have made Representative Williams aware of several potential issues, including the possibility that members of the public, the press, and others could raise questions about Representative Williams’ actions,” the report said. “In fact, that’s precisely what happened.”

Days after the Center published its story, Williams issued a statement that said the Center had made a “laughable ‘charge’” against him.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent nonpartisan board, disagreed.

After an extensive review, the group voted 6-0 in April 2016 to recommend further investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Williams did not cooperate with the OCE review, according to the agency’s report.

“The Board finds that there is substantial reason to believe that Representative Williams’ personal financial interest in his auto dealership may be perceived as having influenced his performance of official duties,” according to the OCE report, which was forwarded to the House ethics committee.

The House committee reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents and interviewed six witnesses, including Williams, the report said.

The House ethics committee’s decision on Tuesday drew the ire of Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy for the nonprofit Issue One, a government accountability group.

“What purpose does the House Ethics Committee serve if it doesn’t ensure compliance with its own standards of conduct?” McGehee said in a statement. “Today’s report proves they are an ‘ethics’ committee in name only, and further highlights the importance of the Office of Congressional Ethics.”

McGehee said Williams clearly violated the instructions in the House ethics manual.

“Now, we learn Rep. Williams did not even receive a slap on the wrist,” she said. “The original point of the investigation was whether Williams cleared his official action with the House Ethics Committee — and by the committee’s own admission in its report, he did not, a violation of House standards of conduct.”

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