Stand up for facts and support PolitiFact.

Now is your chance to go on the record as supporting trusted, factual information by joining PolitiFact’s Truth Squad. Contributions or gifts to PolitiFact, which is part of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Poynter Institute, are tax deductible.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Alan Grayson
stated on April 5, 2016 in a Tampa Bay Times interview:
In every ethics case that has resulted in a formal sanction, "there's been an investigative subcommittee that's been established first."
true half-true
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, is facing an ethics investigation while running for U.S. Senate. (AP file photo) U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, is facing an ethics investigation while running for U.S. Senate. (AP file photo)

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, is facing an ethics investigation while running for U.S. Senate. (AP file photo)

Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin April 13, 2016

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson downplays potential for punishment in ethics investigation

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson waved off a recent congressional report on his alleged ethics violations, arguing that the findings mean he’s practically in the clear.

The Office of Congressional Ethics on April 5, 2016, released a report recommending that a House committee keep investigating Grayson. The Orlando Democrat, who is running for Sen. Marco Rubio’s soon-to-open seat, has been accused of improperly managing a hedge fund, not disclosing all his finances and conducting business deals with the federal government that would be conflicts of interest.

So far, the House has not formed a new subcommittee to keep looking into the allegations. Grayson said in a conference call with reporters that is a sign he likely won’t have to face serious repercussions.

"In every single instance where there's been any formal sanction -— an expulsion, a reprimand or a censure of any member — in every one of those cases since the Office of Congressional Ethics was established, there's been an investigative subcommittee that's been established first," he said. He added that if the House Ethics Committee doesn’t form one of these panels, it usually will dismiss the complaint.

"What this does very likely represent is the end of the road regarding this particular inquiry," he said.

We wondered whether Grayson was right that formal sanctions have only followed the creation of an investigative subcommittee. We found that Grayson has a point on the most severe types of punishments, but it doesn’t mean investigations (or potential penalties) have reached "the end of the road." There may yet be mileage to cover here.

House rules

Let’s look at how ethics investigations work. The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent body in charge of reviewing misconduct charges by House members and their staffs. The House created the office in March 2008 after criticism that its own self-policing wasn’t working very well, and the new office began reviewing cases in February 2009.

The office investigates complaints, then makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee. The committee can act upon the office’s reports, and still has the power to start investigations on its own.

Grayson cited as "formal sanctions" — expulsion, reprimand and censure — but those are punishments that Congress rarely metes out, to begin with.

Expulsion is what it sounds like: A member is removed from the House by a two-thirds vote. It has only happened five times in the history of the chamber, all before the Office of Congressional Ethics was created.

The last time was in 2002, when Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was expelled after taking campaign funds for personal use. Pennsylvania Democrat Michael Myers was expelled in 1980 for accepting a $50,000 bribe during the FBI’s Abscam sting, and three other members were kicked out after the Civil War started, for disloyalty to the Union.

Next is censure, when a majority of the House votes to admonish a member’s behavior. Usually this includes a public shaming of sorts, during which the censured member must stand in the middle of the House chamber while a resolution is read aloud.

The most recent example is Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., who was censured in 2010 for 11 ethics violations. Those violations included misusing his office resources to solicit funds and not paying taxes on a vacation home. It was the 23rd time a member had been punished with a censure.

Rangel’s censure did have an investigative subcommittee in the House Ethics Committee, because procedure in this case required it.

The same is true for the formal reprimand, also decided by House vote following an investigation. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, "reprimand" and "censure" were essentially interchangeable until "reprimand" was defined as a lesser punishment in 1976. Unlike a censure, there is no public humiliation component of a reprimand.

In 2012, California Democrat Laura Richardson was reprimanded for making congressional staff work on her campaign. Her punishment included a $10,000 fine. It was the 10th formal reprimand since 1976.

We’ll note the Office of Congressional Ethics doesn’t factor in here, because the House Ethics Committee started its own investigation into Richardson, without a referral from the office. Again, the committee did empanel an investigative subcommittee, because that’s the procedure.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist with government watchdog Public Citizen, said Grayson "is painting a false picture" of how members of Congress are disciplined. The formal punishments outlined above require an investigative subcommittee, but House rules outline scads of other punishments that can be levied.

These other actions include fines, restitution, amending errant financial reports, removal from committees, loss of privileges or seniority or "any other sanction determined by the Committee to be appropriate." Holman said there’s been more than 20 of these cases since the OCE started.

The House Ethics Committee is not necessarily bound to begin an investigative subcommittee in these cases. And even then, as sometimes happens in these cases, members can leave office rather than face an investigation (the committee only holds sway over House members).

In 2011, Ohio Republican Jean Schmidt was ordered to repay $500,000 for free legal help without the House Ethics Committee starting an investigative subcommittee. She was not found guilty of knowingly violating House ethics rules. She repaid less than $50,000 before losing her re-election primary.

There also isn’t always a set time limit for action, as Grayson implied. Instead of dismissing the complaint, the House Ethics Committee cited rule 18(a) in its conclusion to the OCE report on his case. That means the committee will keep the case open and may start an investigative subcommittee later.

Sometimes that can mean much later. For example, the committee invoked rule 18(a) in  August 2012 for Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. An investigative subcommittee didn’t come until six months later, in March 2013. Andrews resigned the following year, with the investigation still open.

We also found one other exceptional case that’s important to note. South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson was formally reprimanded in 2009 for interrupting President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address by shouting, "You lie!" That was through a resolution, not an ethics investigation.

Wilson refused to formally apologize on the House floor after already apologizing to Obama personally. The Democrat-led House voted 240-179 for the reprimand over his "breach of decorum." The vote was largely seen as a political maneuver, not an outright ethics violation.

Our ruling

Grayson said that in every ethics case that has resulted in a formal sanction, "there's been an investigative subcommittee that's been established first."

The formal sanctions he cited were expulsion, censure and reprimand, all of which are exceedingly rare punishments. There are only three examples to pick from since the Office of Congressional Ethics materialized in 2009. In one case — the case of Wilson yelling "you lie!" — a formal reprimand came via a largely party-line resolution, not an ethics investigation, so no subcommittee was established.

More importantly, Grayson omits that there are many other ways to discipline a member of Congress beyond formal sanctions. He also downplays that the House Ethics Committee kept his case open and could convene an investigative committee later.

We rate his statement Half True.

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, comments during conference call, April 5, 2016

Tampa Bay Times, "Congressional investigators cite numerous potential ethics violations by Rep. Alan Grayson," April 5, 2016

USA Today, "Traficant expelled after final jabs in House," July 24, 2002

Politico, "Resolution of disapproval passed," Sept. 15, 2009

Cleveland Plain Dealer, "House reprimands Rep. Joe Wilson for yelling 'You lie' at Obama during health-care speech," Sept. 15, 2009

ABC News, "Rep. Joe Wilson Resolution Rare Move for House," Sept. 16, 2009

Slate, "Censures and Reprimands," Sept. 16, 2009

Washington Post, "Rep. Charlie Rangel found guilty of 11 ethics violations," Nov. 16, 2010

Washington Post, "House censures Rep. Charles Rangel in 333-79 vote," Dec. 3, 2010

Politico, "House Ethics: Jean Schmidt took improper $500K gift but not guilty of violation," Aug. 5, 2011

New York Times, "Ethics Panel Takes Action in 3 Cases," Aug. 5, 2011

Cleveland Plain Dealer, "House Ethics Committee rules Rep. Jean Schmidt must repay lawyers," Aug. 5, 2011

Roll Call, "Jean Schmidt Loses GOP Primary in Big Upset," March 6, 2012

USA Today, "After loss, Schmidt can ignore ethics ruling," March 12, 2012

The Hill, "GOP Rep. Schmidt fails to raise funds to pay Ethics panel fines," Aug. 1, 2012

Washington Post, "Ethics panel says Rep. Laura Richardson broke federal law, obstructed probe," Aug. 1, 2012

House Ethics Committee, "Statement of the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics Regarding Allegations Relating to Representative Laura Richardson,"  Aug.1, 2012

Los Angeles Times, "House reprimands Rep. Laura Richardson in ethics case," Aug. 3, 2012

Dayton Daily News, "Schmidt skirts legal bills by leaving Congress," April 3, 2013

Congressional Research Service, "Expulsion, Censure, Reprimand, and Fine: Legislative Discipline in the House of Representatives," May 2, 2013

Washington Post, "N.J. Democrat Rob Andrews to resign from Congress," Feb. 4, 2014

House Ethics Committee, "Committee Rules for 114th Congress," Feb. 12, 2015

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Potty-mouthed Alan Grayson and his offshore investments," May 13, 2015

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Ethics complaint filed against Alan Grayson over his hedge funds," July 6, 2015

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Alan Grayson changes name of fund that drew ethics complaint," Sept. 20, 2015

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Group seeks ethics investigation into Alan Grayson," Oct. 12, 2015

House Ethics Committee, "Rep. Grayson Response to OCE," Jan. 22, 2016

New York Times, "Alan Grayson’s Double Life: Congressman and Hedge Fund Manager," Feb. 11, 2016

The Hill, "Ethics panel confirms review of Alan Grayson," Feb. 22, 2016

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "House Ethics Committee extends probe into Alan Grayson," Feb. 22, 2016

Office of Congressional Ethics, "Rep. Grayson Report and Findings," April 5, 2016

House Ethics Committee, "Statement of the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics Regarding Representative Alan Grayson,"  April 5, 2016

New York Times, "Office of Congressional Ethics Cites Possible Violations by Alan Grayson," April 5, 2016

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Alan Grayson braces for Ethics Committee report on his Caymans hedge funds," April. 5, 2016

Office of Congressional Ethics, "Referrals," accessed April 11, 2016

Office of Congressional Ethics, "Process," accessed April 11, 2016

Congress.gov, "H.Res.744 - Raising a question of the privileges of the House," accessed April 12, 2016

Interview with Kelly Brewington, Office of Congressional Ethics spokeswoman, April 11-12, 2016

Interview with Julie Tagen, Grayson spokeswoman, April 11-13, 2016

Interview with Craig Holman, Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist, April 12-13, 2016

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Joshua Gillin

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson downplays potential for punishment in ethics investigation

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up