The head of the controversial Office of Congressional Ethics, Leo Wise, announced today he’ll be leaving the office he helped to create to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the office two years ago in a bid to “drain the swamp” and tighten ethics standards. For decades the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct turned a blind eye to member’s infractions; the panel’s members were unwilling to police their colleagues. “I’m proud of what we accomplished,” Wise said. “It was an honor to help build the OCE and lead it through its first Congress.”
The quasi-independent agency has been the source of the spate of ethics charges that has caught headlines the past year, including the cases against Reps. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters, which are expected to see open House trials in November.
As the House’s top watchdog, Wise was not a popular guy on the Hill. Members complained of being unfairly targeted and that investigations that sometimes yielded nothing were made public, tarring them with the stigma any way. Much of that blame, though, was also directed at the still-dysfunctional Standards Committee. The OCE investigates hints of impropriety and recommends what action the Standards Committee should take. The Standards Committee has had an uneven record in deciding what cases it’ll pursue and those it drops. The stilted approach had led to accusations of racism – most of the cases they’ve pursued have been against Congressional Black Caucus members.
Wise’s resignation comes as OCE’s future remains cloudy. Even if Democrats keep control of the House, Pelosi has said she will review the process and ethics groups fear she would gut the panel. If Republicans take over, House Minority Leader John Boehner isn’t saying what changes he might make but the conventional wisdom is that the GOP would disband the office. All of which means that Wise might have the distinction of being the one and only head of the Office of Congressional Ethics.