An ethics watchdog group has filed a complaint with a House ethics office, accusing Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) of lying in an attempt to throw off a previous House ethics investigation into her failure to pay almost $500,000 in legal bills.
The group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed its complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, a quasi-independent body charged with conducting preliminary reviews of allegations against lawmakers and furthering them on to the full Ethics Committee for further action. CREW also asked the FBI to investigate.
Earlier this year, the House Ethics Committee cleared Schmidt of lying on her financial disclosure forms and violating House gift rules after she failed to report free legal services she received from lawyers working for the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund (TALDF), who were paid by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA). But they also demanded she pay the $500,000 worth of legal services back to the TCA.
Schmidt claimed her lawyers had never discussed fees with her and that she had not paid the bills because she had never received any. One of Rep. Schmidt’s lawyers, Bruce Fein, disputes this account.
“If Rep. Schmidt lied to investigators for the OCE and the House Ethics Committee, she may have committed a crime,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Her argument sounds remarkably like that made by the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), who claimed he hadn’t paid contractors who worked on his house because he never received a bill. The difference is Sen. Stevens was indicted; Rep. Schmidt walked away.”
In an interview with the OCE, Mr. Fein said it was always clear to Schmidt that the TCA was paying for his services. The Ethics Committee’s report said Schmidt didn’t ask her lawyers how they were being paid. Further, Schmidt attended a deposition in Ohio where the issue of who was paying her legal fees was discussed.
“While the inquiry into Rep. Schmidt’s failure to pay her legal bills is over, now the OCE should consider whether the congresswoman lied during the course of the investigation,” said Sloan. “Government officials never learn, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”
The allegations against Schmidt stem from litigation involving statements David Kirkorian, who has twice sought to challenge her for the 2nd District seat, made against her, and whether she improperly relied upon donations from the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund to fight Kirkorian in court instead of setting up an independent legal expense trust.
Krikorian had filed multiple complaints to the OCE, alleging that the Ohio lawmaker improperly received free legal services from the TCA and its legal defense fund in violation of House rules. Schmidt has said she followed House rules and repeatedly sought Ethics Committee advice about the legal defense funds, but according to OCE report, she started receiving the legal assistance in the fall 2008 and only sought the committee’s advice after Krikorian filed his first complaint in September 2009.
In its final report on the matter, the Ethics Committee cited repeated interactions with Schmidt and her office as they advised her about the legal payments. On Aug. 1, the committee unanimously voted not to empanel an investigative subcommittee to look into the matter further because they said Schmidt unknowingly accepted legal expense payments from the TALDF and didn’t believe further investigation would turn up new evidence.
Instead, they ordered Schmidt to stop accepting legal work from the group, disclose the amount already accepted and pay back the attorneys who helped her fight various Ohio cases over the last three years.
Schmidt and Krikorian have repeatedly clashed in court since the 2008 election cycle, challenging each other before the Ohio Elections Commission, the Ohio courts and U.S. district court.