A Congressional ethics probe released Monday has determined there is “substantial reason to believe” that U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield violated “House rules and standards of conduct” by having lobbying contacts with his wife and permitting his wife to have lobbying contacts with his staff.
Whitfield’s wife, a lobbyist for the national Humane Society, repeatedly contacted his office during the past three years concerning legislation she was supporting, and Whitfield’s staff responded by providing assistance, including scheduling meetings, to further her agenda, according to the inquiry.
The federal Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) found that Whitfield “may have violated House rules and standards of conduct by using his office to provide special favors and privileges to advance and facilitate the lobbying activities of his wife and her employer.”
The OCE is an independent, nonpartisan body charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct by House members.
The OCE’s previously confidential findings were disclosed Monday by the House Committee on Ethics as it announced its intention to continue investigating alleged improper lobbying by Connie Harriman-Whitfield on behalf of the national Humane Society.
The OCE forwarded those findings to the Committee on Ethics in June, which began its own inquiry. The committee decided in July to continue its investigation, and said in a news release late Monday that it will gather “additional information.”
Further review “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee,” the release said.
The pending complaint does not address ethical issues raised earlier this year by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that Whitfield, his wife and another powerful lobbyist had a longstanding financial partnership in property at a West Virginia luxury resort. (Read KyCIR’s report: How a Congressman, His Wife and a Lobbyist Mixed Politics, Personal Finances)
Harriman-Whitfield is senior policy adviser and a lobbyist for the Humane Society’s Legislative Fund. Since she began lobbying for the fund in 2011, it has donated $8,000 to Whitfield — more than three times its total contributions to him in the preceding seven years.
The OCE found that from 2011 to 2014, Harriman-Whitfield contacted her husband’s congressional staff about “legislation she lobbied on numerous occasions.”
Those contacts included “discussions of advocacy strategy, selection of potential co-sponsors, drafting of bills and obtaining Representative Whitfield’s support for legislation.”
The OCE alleged that Whitfield’s office provided the Humane Society Legislative Fund with assistance related to its lobbying activities.
The report noted: “The assistance included scheduling as many as 100 meetings with other congressional offices for Representative Whitfield’s wife and HSLF and conducting joint meetings with Representative Whitfield and his wife with Representatives and Senators to promote HSLF legislative priorities.”
Whitfield’s Washington office did not respond Monday to several requests for comment from KyCIR.
The OCE’s report states that Whitfield “cooperated” with its four-month review and that he presented a “statement” to the OCE board on May 29. That statement is not included in the report, which also says that Whitfield, 71, “could not be interviewed for medical reasons.”
Whitfield held numerous campaign appearances and fund-raising events prior to the election, however, including one in Vail, Colo., less than a month before the OCE inquiry was launched, and another in Louisville in June, just a few days after the inquiry concluded.
Whitfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville, easily won re-election last week to an 11th term.
Harriman-Whitfield immediately hung up the telephone Monday afternoon when a KyCIR reporter identified himself. A subsequent voicemail message left for her was not returned.
In a letter submitted to the House Ethics Committee on July 31, Whitfield’s attorney, Beth A. Wilkinson, wrote that the findings were “unfounded,” and that the committee should “promptly dismiss this matter.”
“Representative Whitfield and his staff did not grant any special favors or privileges to Ms. Harriman-Whitfield or the Humane Society,” the letter stated.
Harriman-Whitfield “is a trusted confidant of her husband and one of his most important personal and political advisers. In her role as his spouse, Ms. Harriman-Whitfield frequently provides her husband with guidance and administrative assistance, and counsels him on how to serve his constituents and manage his office.”
In a conference call with reporters in July, Whitfield—denied any impropriety involving controversial pending legislation supported by him and the Humane Society pertaining to the practice of “soring” show horses—the application of “foreign substances” to alter a horse’s gait.
(Read KyCIR’s report: Congressman Ed Whitfield Denies Wrongdoing Alleged in Ethics Complaints)
Whitfield said he has been interested in the issue for a decade and contended that — contrary to the OCE’s findings — his wife never lobbied him on it.
But the OCE’s report cites a June 22, 2012, e-mail from Harriman-Whitfield to a fellow Humane Society employee who asked whether it would be possible to get legislation introduced promptly. Harriman-Whitfield replied:
“Yes! Working with Ed and [Chief of Staff] on it today.”
Moreover, the OCE found that the Humane Society “frequently asked” Harriman-Whitfield to have her husband or his staff “perform a significant amount of official actions,” including requests for co-sponsoring of bills, signing letters, and making floor speeches.
Her responses to those requests, according to the OCE report, included:
- “I will talk to Ed tonight in-between votes.”
- “I will talk to Ed after he gets out of his Health Subcommittee hearing.”
- “I have already talked to Ed about this.”
- “Yes! Working with Ed and [Chief of Staff] on it today.”
- “I will ask him.”
- “I don’t need to tell YOU that going through a spouse is usually more efficient than going through the office. I will get a couple of quotes from him.”
And in a January 28, 2014, e-mail to Whitfield’s press aide Marty Irby, Harriman-Whitfield stated that the Humane Society would not “be able to do well setting up meetings with Republican offices . . . . That is why Ed’s office was so crucial in setting up meetings between Republicans and third parties.”
Harriman-Whitfield “had multiple contacts with those members of Representative Whitfield’s staff who were responsible for animal welfare issues, including: Chief of Staff, Congressional Aide, and Scheduler,” the OCE inquiry concluded.
Whitfield said in the July conference call that he believes the ethics complaint was filed against him because “we’ve been so successful” in attracting large numbers of supporters for the legislation, which currently is pending in Congress. He acknowledged, however, that the ethics complaint could stymie the bill, at least for the time being.
Indeed, the last action on the legislation occurred 18 months ago, when it was referred to a House subcommittee.
Supporters of the anti-soring bill contend that it would strengthen existing law and eliminate what they consider to be the ongoing abuse of show horses. Opponents say the bill, if enacted, would effectively decimate the performance-horse industry.
The brief statement issued on Monday by the House Committee on Ethics said nothing about a second complaint pending against Whitfield, filed with the committee in June by Cincinnati attorney Michael Moeddel.
Moeddel’s complaint, filed for an unidentified client, involves ethical issues not only involving the Humane Society’s lobbying, but also matters raised in stories earlier this year by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
KyCIR reported that Whitfield, his wife and and another lobbyist, Juanita Duggan, had a longstanding financial partnership and joint ownership in property at a West Virginia luxury resort.
KyCIR’s investigation found that both Harriman-Whitfield and Duggan lobbied for clients that had legislative business before Whitfield in Congress. While Duggan was involved with them, those clients and the trade associations where she worked donated more than $300,000 to his political campaigns.
Moeddel told KyCIR last week that he had heard nothing from the House committee about the status of his complaint. He said he doesn’t expect to learn more unless the committee makes its findings public.
The committee includes five members from each party and has a non-partisan staff. Its jurisdiction includes issuing advisory opinions and investigating potential ethics violations.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at email@example.com or (502) 814.6533.