Rep. Steve Pearce repeatedly voted to weaken and defund a similar office overseeing members of Congress like himself but is campaigning for governor on creating an ethics watchdog to regulate the behavior of state lawmakers.
In March, Pearce, the GOP nominee for governor of New Mexico, announced his support for a ballot initiative creating the New Mexico Ethics Commission. If approved by voters this November, the initiative would create a seven-member commission to investigate complaints against state candidates, lobbyists and elected officials.
In Congress, however, Pearce led efforts to defund the Office of Congressional Ethics. The independent watchdog investigates complaints of misconduct against lawmakers and their staff.
Pearce admitted in 2015 that his efforts to weaken the OCE followed an investigation into a member of his Washington staff for allegations of misconduct. Pearce has said the charges against his staffer were dismissed, but the actual results of the investigation cannot be independently confirmed as the OCE is barred from confirming whether the investigation existed or if the charges were actually dismissed.
That year, Pearce quietly succeeded in getting the House to approve new ethics rules that required the OCE to inform anyone under investigation of their right to retain counsel. Craig Holman, a government affairs advocate for Public Citizen, told The Hill that the new rules formalized previously informal fact-finding missions of the OCE into complicated legal proceedings, leading to delays in the process.
The OCE does not have subpoena power and traditionally serves as the first step in determining if a complaint should be referred to the House Ethics Committee for a formal investigation.
Holman said the intent behind Pearce’s proposal was to give members of Congress “additional authority to complicate an ethics investigation.”
Pearce’s efforts to weaken ethical oversight of Congress have continued.
In 2016, Pearce introduced two amendments to defund the OCE. One of the amendments would have completely defunded the office, the other would have cut its budget by nearly $200,000.
In 2017, Pearce joined other members of Congress in an effort to eliminate the independence of OCE. Pearce supported Rep. Robert Goodlatte’s proposal to prevent OCE from pursuing investigations that might result in criminal charges. Instead, the measure proposed giving the House Ethics Committee power to shut down OCE inquiries they didn’t like. The effort failed following widespread public backlash.
Despite his efforts to weaken congressional oversight, Pearce said he believed ethical violations should have consequences.
“Too often people feel like that they’re just invisible in elected office, that nothing is really going to happen,” Pearce said. “As we see consequences then it will cause a greater responsiveness on the part of all towards an ethical conduct of our government.”