Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico are under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee for alleged violations, although both men strongly deny any wrongdoing.
The allegation against Lujan is tied to the Democratic "sit-in" on the House floor in June 2016. Conyers has come under review for his interaction with a former top aide who pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property.
And Michael Collins, chief of staff for Rep. John Lewis, is also under investigation by the Ethics panel following a complaint from a conservative watchdog group over allegedly serving improperly as the Georgia Democrat’s campaign treasurer and top aide at the same time.
All three cases were disclosed today following referrals from the Office of Congressional Ethics. The Ethics Committee has another 45 days to decide to go ahead with full investigations or handle the case in another matter.
The Ethics Committee review of Lujan was spurred by a complaint filed by a right-leaning group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, with OCE. The same organization filed the complaint against Collins.
House Democrats staged a high-profile "sit in" on the House floor last year when Republicans refused to allow votes on several gun-related measures. The dramatic move caught national attention; after Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) adjourned the House and C-Span cameras stopped showing what was happening on the floor, Democratic lawmakers streamed it on their phones.
The group filing the complaint, FACT, alleged Democrats improperly used images of themselves on the floor during the protest in fundraising appeals. House rules prohibit using official resources for political activities. Lujan sent out a fundrainsing pitch with a photo of him on the floor during the sit-in. FACT filed a complaint with OCE over this fundraising pitch, as well as other by additional Democratic lawmakers. OCE voted to refer the matter to the Ethics Committee.
"This announcement is the result of a frivolous complaint, filed by a highly partisan outside group about activities during the sit-in last year — a complaint that is without merit," said Joe Shoemaker, Lujan’s communications director, in a statement. "Congressman Luján is committed to abiding by House rules, is confident he has done so in this case, and looks forward to a timely resolution by the Ethics Committee.”
The Conyers case has to do with Cynthia Martin, formerly his top aide. Martin pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property in April 2016. Martin was mistakenly routed $16,500 in deposits to her credit union account by another customer. Martin refused to return the money and was later charged with a crime. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was placed on leave by Conyers. The Ethics Committee review involves her departure from Conyers’ staff.
According to an OCE referral, "From April to August 2016, Cynthia Martin received compensation from the House of Representatives at a time when she may no longer have been working for the House. If Ms. Martin accepted compensation that was not commensurate with the work she was performing, then she may have violated House rules and standards of conduct."
Martin formally left the House payroll on Sept. 30, 2016.
"This is not a new controversy, but rather involves the same matter that the Office of Congressional Ethics released back in February," said a Conyers’ spokeswoman. "Mr. Conyers’ office has worked diligently at all times to comply with the rules, is cooperating with the Ethics Committee, and is confident that this matter can be swiftly resolved."
Collins and Lewis have denied any wrongdoing in how the Georgia Democrat’s top aide handled his dual role as campaign treasurer and chief of staff. Collins is no longer the campaign treasurer, according to Federal Election Commission records.
"Mr. Collins would like reporters to refer to the committee’s release which states ‘the mere fact of a referral or an extension, and the mandatory disclosure of such an extension…does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred,’" said a statement from Brenda Jones, Lewis’ communications director. "Mr. Collins respects the process of ethics review and is cooperating with the committee."