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Investigators send Meadows inquiry to Ethics Committee

Kenny West spoke at the Henderson County Republican Party convention in March 2015. Kenny West spoke at the Henderson County Republican Party convention in March 2015.

An investigation into whether U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows improperly paid his chief of staff for 10 months after barring him from congressional offices over a personnel matter was referred last week to the House Committee on Ethics.

The inquiry by the Office of Congressional Ethics concluded that there is “substantial reason to believe that Rep. Meadows retained an employee who did not perform duties commensurate” with the pay he received, which was $155,000 a year, the investigators said.
The investigation reached back to October of 2014, when female employees of Meadows’ Washington and Hendersonville offices complained that West’s conduct made them feel uncomfortable.(See details in this timeline.)

Although Meadows acted quickly to investigate the complaints and then bar West from the workplace, he continued to pay him as chief of staff for five months and maintained his same annual salary through a final 4½-month period as a “senior adviser.”
In a news release and in his attorney’s letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), Meadows emphasized that he “self-reported” the matter to the ethics agency to resolve questions about his payment of severance to West.
“In an effort to ensure that his actions were appropriate and in line with House rules, Congressman Meadows himself requested that the Ethics Committee look into the matter last November,” his office said in a statement. “Because he reported directly to the House Ethics Committee, he chose not to take part in the Office of Congressional Ethics review. Since then, Mr. Meadows has and will continue to fully comply with the Ethics Committee’s inquiry and awaits any recommendations going forward. Congressman Meadows is fully confident that the Committee will find that he acted in good faith, and moving forward, he remains committed to continuing the people’s work in the House.”
In a letter to the board, Meadows’ attorney said the allegation that Meadows improperly paid his former chief of staff after his termination should have been dismissed based on the congressman’s “good faith” interpretation of the “open and clear official House practice of paying severance.”
It was unclear how much damage, if any, the ethics case might cause for Meadows, a popular second-term conservative who is adored by the Tea Party wing of the GOP and who also is attentive to 11th District constituent needs that cross party lines.
Meadows’ Democatic opponent, Bryson City Council member Rick Bryson, made it clear that he considered the news a boost to his underdog effort to unseat the Republican.
Asked if the ethics report might make the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee take a second look of a deeply red seat in southwestern North Carolina, Bryson said that’s already happening.
“Let’s put it this way, we’re talking,” he said of DCCC officials. “My campaign manager just hung up from them. They’re taking a whole lot more interest in what’s going on in the 11th District than they have in the past.”

Meadows hires rival

A one-time sandwich shop owner and residential developer from Jackson County, Meadows won the open 11th District seat in November 2012 and soon hired West, one of seven vanquished opponents in the Republican primary, as his chief of staff. An insurance salesman who like Meadows had no prior electoral experience, West had finished sixth in the eight-candidate primary, with 4.2 percent of the vote.
West, 58, exhibited behavior that caused women in the local and D.C. congressional offices to come forward with complaints, the OCE said.
An independent, non-partisan arm of the House of Representatives, the OCE reviews allegations of misconduct against members and can refer the matters to the House Committee on Ethics. The OCE is governed by an eight-person Board of Directors, the members of which are private citizens. They can’t be members of Congress or employees of the federal government.
After receiving the OCE referral on March 18, the House Ethics Committee’s chair and ranking member jointly decided in July to extend the committee’s review of the matter. The committee announced the decision in a news release last Wednesday.
The investigation centered less on the circumstances of West’s departure than on the pay he received afterwards and whether he performed work commensurate with that compensation.
After the female employees complained about West’s behavior, Meadows asked the chief of staff of Trey Gowdy, a fellow Republican from South Carolina, to interview the staffers. After that interview, West never returned to work in either the Washington office or 11th District headquarters, which is on the ground floor of the Grove Street Courthouse in Hendersonville.
Although he was not present in the congressional offices, West continued to do some work via phone and email, witnesses told the OCE. One of the staffers reported again to Gowdy’s chief of staff, in January 2015, that West was still working.
“That week,” the witness told the OCE, Meadows “was very upset” because someone confronted him on the House floor and told him that he needed to fire West. “At that point, Rep. Meadows knew Rep. Gowdy’s chief of staff had been contacted again, this time without his knowledge,” the OCE report said.
The investigators found that West continued to work sporadically for Meadows up until the congressman filed a payroll form changing his title to senior adviser — with the same annual salary he drew as chief of staff, $155,000.
When Meadows informed his aides that West was no longer chief of staff, some expressed surprise because they thought he had long since been terminated, the OCE report said.

OCE: West did no work from April to August 2015

In the letter he sent to OCE through his attorney, Meadows said that he and West came to an agreement that West would “resign fulltime duties from my office towards the end of May 2015 and that I would continue to pay him for a short period of time both for the sake of a smooth transition, and so he would continue to perform some special duties for me during the transition. Kenny did perform some services and was paid through August 2015.” Although the OCE asked both Meadows and West for details that would establish “whether or not Mr. West performed official work” from April through August, both “refused to cooperate with the OCE’s review.”
In its report, the OCE said that Meadows may have violated House “standards of conduct by certifying that Kenny West was performing official duties commensurate with his compensation.” The House ethics manual requires that members of Congress “regularly certify that all official funds have been properly spent. A false certification may bring criminal penalties” and an effort by the government to recover any amount improperly paid.
The OCE investigators say West “appears to have conducted a limited amount of official congressional work from October 2014 to April 2015, though the OCE was unable to confirm where Mr. West conducted the work or the extent of the work completed.” They also scrutinized the period from April through August 2015, “when it does not appear that Mr. West performed any official work.” During that 4½-month period he was paid $58,125.01.
Meadows, the OCE said, described West’s situation in an inconsistent way, characterizing his work sometimes as “transitionary or less than fulltime” and at other times describing the pay as severance pay.
Also unexplained was why Meadows made at least three different decisions about West’s status over the course of 10 weeks in the spring of 2015. On April 17 — eight days after changing West’s title to senior adviser — the congressman notified the House payroll office that West would be terminated on May 31. Then, on May 21, Meadows filed a new form extending West’s employment until June 30. Finally, on June 10, Meadows filed a form superseding the May 21 paperwork and extending West’s employment until Aug. 15.
“The board notes that Rep. Meadows changed Mr. West’s official title, filed termination paperwork with the House, and then extended Mr. West’s employment in subsequent filing, indicating no intention of paying Mr. West any form of ‘severance,’” even though severance was the term Meadows and his communications director had used in explaining West’s employment from April to August, the OCE said. Also in conflict, the OCE said, was Meadows’ statement that West performed “some amount of official work” after April 1. “The OCE instead received testimony and documents illustrating that Mr. West did not perform any official work after April 1, 2015.”

Meadows was ‘proactive in addressing’ the matter

The OCE recommended that the Committee on Ethics review the case further because “there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Meadows retained an employee who did not perform duties commensurate with the compensation the employee received and certified that the compensation met House standards, in violation of House rule and standards of conduct.”
The OCE, which has no subpoena power, listed eight people associated with the case who did not cooperate with its inquiry, including Meadows, West, district director Wayne King and five other staffers in either the Washington or Hendersonville office. It recommended that the Ethics Committee issue subpoenas to those eight.
In his letter to the board, Meadows’ attorney takes issue with the OCE’s characterization of the congressman as noncooperative.
“In self-reporting, Congressman Meadows asked the committee to investigate the matter and has been consistently proactive in addressing these allegations and voluntarily provided relevant documents to the Committee last month,” wrote the attorney Elliot S. Berke, a principal of a Washington law firm that uses the tagline, “Navigating the Law of Politics.”
“Not surprisingly, these are facts that the OCE ignores or disregards in its referral. Congressman Meadows informed the OCE on Nov. 17, 2015, that rather than engage in their duplicative, costly and burdensome process, he would instead self-report the issue to the Committee in the interest of expediency. It is, after all, the Committee — and not the OCE — that is the ultimate arbiter of compliance with House Rules and Standards of Conduct.”
In declining to participate in the OCE review, Meadows took issue with the agency’s “longstanding practice of publishing entire transcripts of interviews even when they contain irrelevant, ancillary, and personal content.” While Meadows expected to be labeled “uncooperative,” despite self-reporting the situation, “We are nevertheless disappointed to confirm such a determination was reached.”
When the personnel issues were made known to him, the attorney said, Meadows “took swift and appropriate steps to address the issues, including … an internal review; arranging for an independent third party review, making changes to the scope, nature and title of Mr. West’s official responsibilities; transferring Mr. West’s supervisory functions to other personnel; and ultimately coming to an agreement with Mr. West that resulted in his resignation.”
The measures Meadows took, his attorney said, were later confirmed by House personnel attorneys “to be consistent with advice (their office) has offered in similar situations.”
As for the severance payments, Meadows agreed to compensate West “to ensure a smooth transition of his officials responsibilities,” Berke wrote. “It was his belief that these severance payments were consistent with House Rules and practice.”
Throughout the process, Berke said, Meadows had taken steps to comply with House rules and standards of conduct and had done so, “and even if his ultimate interpretation of severance may be proven in error, it was an interpretation taken in good faith.

‘Keeping a rattlesnake in your living room’

Rick Bryson, the Democratic nominee for the 11th Congressional District seat, was already working to exploit the Ethics Committee news.
“He’s given me the biggest campaign contribution I’ve gotten,” he said. “This thing has gone coast to coast. You can find it in the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.”
Asked whether that meant the ethics case would gain traction in the conservative 11th District, Bryson said, “I think it will because there’s a lot of sensitivity to what was taking place there.”
“I’ll put it this way,” he added. “If you’re keeping a pit rattlesnake in your living room, you’ve got a problem. There’s three women that they interviewed and one of them barred the door to the office and told him if he tried to get in they were going to call the cops. They don’t like the whole attitude that the boss (West) can do anything he wants and get away with it.
“My question to Mark Meadows is, if this took place in an insurance company or a factory, that guy would be out the door day 1. He would get whatever pay he was entitled to but he wouldn’t get 10 months of pay for doing nothing, which is what took place. It’s extra sensitive and it looks like Meadows is doing a Richard Nixon type of cover-up.”
Bryson exulted in what he regarded as his good fortune via the Ethics Committee announcement 10 weeks before the election.
“We have got a huge wave that’s rolling over North Carolina,” he said. “Cooper’s up and Deborah Ross is up and while I’m not telling you that I’m up over Mark Meadows what I am telling you is I’ve got the momentum and he doesn’t.”