The House Committee on Ethics publicly reprimanded Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield Thursday for violating House rules in connection with his wife’s former lobbying activities on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States.
The committee found that Whitfield failed to prohibit lobbying contacts between his wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, and his staff, and that he “dispensed special privileges” to her, warranting the committee’s formal “reproval” of the 11-term congressman from Hopkinsville in Western Kentucky.
While the committee accepted Whitfield’s assertion that he did not intentionally disobey House rules and did not do so to benefit himself or Harriman-Whitfield, it nevertheless concluded that he “failed to take the proper care to avoid” violations.
Those violations were “significant and numerous enough” to warrant discipline, according to the committee’s report.
Harriman-Whitfield was senior policy adviser for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which describes itself as “a separate lobbying affiliate” of the Humane Society of the United States. Politico reported last July that she was no longer lobbying for the HSLF.
But from January 2011 until “at least 2015,” Whitfield allowed his wife to contact his staff regarding federal legislation in which the HSLF had an interest, according to the committee’s report.
Those contacts included Harriman-Whitfield’s participation in arranging meetings involving other House members and advocates for legislation that Whitfield sponsored and the HSLF supported, seeking to ban the practice of “soring” show horses — applying “foreign substances” to alter a horse’s gait.
Harriman-Whitfield’s role also included “directly advocating” that her husband vote for certain legislation, and that his staff “alter the language” of certain bills, the committee found.
These contacts “illustrated Ms. Harriman’s unique level of access to, and influence on, Rep. Whitfield’s staff,” the report states.
The committee also questioned Whitfield’s assertion to investigators that he was unaware until October 2013 of the House rule against spousal lobbying. That was nearly three years after Harriman-Whitfield registered as a lobbyist.
Whitfield had a duty to know the applicable rules, the committee concluded. Moreover, its report cites an email sent by Harriman-Whitfield to her husband in December 2012, referring to a newspaper reporter’s inquiry about her lobbying work.
In addition, members of Whitfield’s staff knew that his wife was a lobbyist “well before October 2013,” the committee found, raising questions about how and why they were aware of her status, “yet Rep. Whitfield remained unaware.”
Whitfield also claimed to investigators that his wife’s efforts would have constituted lobbying only if she intended to influence him or his staff, according to the report, and that he had received no “public guidance” leading him to believe otherwise.
But the Humane Society Legislative Fund viewed her activities as being on its behalf, the committee found, and Whitfield never responded to a suggestion made to his wife by the committee’s chief counsel that he request a formal opinion about the propriety of her lobbying contacts.
Whitfield claimed that those contacts were merely “reminders” because he and his wife were “completely aligned” on all issues she discussed with his staff. The committee called that a “mischaracterization” of the facts, in part because he voted against two legislative amendments that Harriman-Whitfield and the HSLF supported.
Whitfield also contended that his wife’s access to and influence on his staff didn’t change once she became a lobbyist. That they remained the same “is precisely the point,” the committee concluded. Her access, and the staff’s treatment of her, “should have changed accordingly. But by all accounts, nothing changed.”
Whitfield, who is not seeking reelection, issued a statement Thursday saying that he accepted the committee’s decision and stressing that any wrongdoing on his part was “completely unintentional.”
“I have done my best to lead my life — both as a citizen and as a Member of Congress — with absolute integrity and honesty,” Whitfield’s statement said. “Despite adhering to those principles, I made a mistake.”
He also blamed opponents of the anti-soring legislation for the House investigation.
“My commitment to animal protection is the reason I became the target of an ethics complaint,” Whitfield’s statement said.
The committee’s report said investigators reviewed more than 140,000 pages of documents in connection with the inquiry and interviewed 11 witnesses, including Whitfield, his wife and current and former House staff members.
There was no mention in the committee’s report of other ethical issues involving Whitfield, which were raised in a series of stories in July 2014 by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. KyCIR reported that Whitfield, his wife and another lobbyist, Juanita Duggan, had a longstanding financial partnership and joint ownership in property at a West Virginia luxury resort.
The KyCIR 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.