WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins can't be pleased that the House Ethics Committee is investigating his investment in an obscure Australian biotech firm. But he can take comfort in the fact that for most lawmakers, such probes end in nothing worse than embarrassment.
The House Ethics Committee conducted 23 investigations in the last Congress, which spanned 2015 and 2016, and performed 34 probes in the two years before that. And out of all those investigations, the committee disciplined a mere four members of the House – each with a letter of reproval, a mild reprimand.
Ethics experts aren't exactly impressed with the committee's performance.
"The House Ethics Committee doesn’t have a great track record in recommending discipline for House members, outside of truly egregious cases that capture substantial media attention," said Donna M. Nagy, executive associate dean and C. Ben Dutton professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and an expert in stock ownership among members of Congress.
Congressional ethics experts cite one key reason for that middling track record: the fact that the Ethics Committee is a panel of House members placed in the uncomfortable position of judging their own peers.
Now the committee's 10 members – five Republicans, five Democrats – await the results of their staff's findings about Collins.
The committee announced last week that it has been probing the Clarence Republican after receiving a report on his actions from the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics.
Public Citizen's Congress Watch, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter – a Democrat from Fairport – and several of Collins' constituents complained to that ethics office about Collins' involvement with Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm whose only product is an experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis.
A longtime Innate investor and member of its board, Collins expanded his investment last year by buying stock at a discount in a private stock sale. He also encouraged then-Rep. Tom Price – now President Trump's health secretary – and several Buffalo community and business leaders to invest.
To Collins' critics, this smells like insider trading: the illegal purchase of stock based on prior knowledge that will boost a company's fortunes.
Innate's fortunes – and stock price – did skyrocket for a time earlier this year, only to come crashing down in June when it revealed that its only product failed in clinical trials.
But Collins' critics note that he authored an amendment last year that could have boosted the fortunes of Innate and other biotech companies, and say he may have violated House rules by talking up the stock while on the job as a congressman.
The Office of Congressional Ethics thought enough of those allegations to turn them over to the Ethics Committee, which is just how things are supposed to work under the new disciplinary process the House created after a series of scandals in the mid-2000s.
Congress established the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008 in hopes of jump-starting the House's moribund practice of disciplining its own members. The idea was to set up an independent team of investigators who would probe possible violations and then report on them to the House Ethics Committee.
Those reports are made public, so the thought at the time was that this new level of public exposure would goad the Ethics Committee into taking its name and its job more seriously.
The new process appears to have done that, to a degree. The committee disciplined only 10 House members between 1997 and 2008, according to research by Public Citizen's Congress Watch, but it has punished more than twice that many lawmakers in recent years.
But ethics watchdogs are still not happy with the panel's performance.
"There's a belief that they tend to look out for their own," said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.
Proof of that fact can be found, ethics experts said, in the Ethics Committee's recent work.
Last year, for example, the committee sent letters of reproval to two members of Congress. One went to Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican who kept his name on his family engineering firm even though House rules clearly state that lawmakers can't attach their names to businesses. Another went to Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who resigned after the Ethics Committee found that he had dispensed special favors to his wife, who was a lobbyist.
The committee took no action in a series of other cases. In some cases, the committee deferred to the Justice Department when scandals involved possible criminal violations. But the committee also took no action against a lawmaker who was accused of forcing his former business partner to sign a false affidavit. Nor did it discipline a lawmaker accused of using campaign funds to pay for a family trip.
Of course, those lawmakers maintained that they were innocent, as does Collins.
"Congressman Collins has followed all ethical and legal guidelines when it comes to his personal investments and he looks forward to their review,” said his spokeswoman, Sarah Minkel.
Ethics experts are looking forward to the Ethics Committee's work, too – but with trepidation
"I just wish I had more confidence that the House Ethics Committee would interpret the House Ethics Rules in a more common-sense way," said Meredith McGehee, strategic adviser for the Campaign Legal Center and a longtime good-government advocate.