Congressional scrutiny into improper lobbying at the Department of Housing and Urban Development shifted Wednesday from a Virginia cabinet secretary nominee to a high-ranking political appointee at HUD accused of threatening investigators.
HUD Inspector General David Montoya told a congressional panel that Elliot Mincberg, an assistant secretary at HUD who previously was a top lawyer for House Democrats, claimed not to know anything about lobbying rules he helped draft. And once investigators began investigating another department employee, Mr. Mincberg tried to thwart the probe, the inspector general said.
Mr. Mincberg also withheld information about the identity of email recipients from investigators, saying he didn't want the list to end up in the hands of Congress, the IG said.
"Mincberg's obligation to exercise sound ethical judgment and avoid violating well established departmental policy was mitigated by his interest in 'more aggressive' in regards to lobbying," Mr. Montoya said.
The probe began after then HUD Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones sent an email to more than 1,000 recipients — including dozens of HUD employees — asking they lobby lawmakers to "defend against efforts by some Republicans" on a pending housing measure.
The IG report found Mr. Jones and four others broke anti-lobbying laws that bar such behavior; Mr. Montoya said Mr. Jones broke the rules "inadvertently."
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has tapped Mr. Jones to become the state's next Commerce secretary, but a confirmation vote in the Virginia House of Delegates was put on hold after news of the investigation was reported by The Washington Times on Tuesday.
Mr. Montoya said Mr. Jones broke anti-lobbying rules, but cleared him of intentional wrongdoing, saying the former official was "embarrassed and ill served" by aides who knew better.
Instead, Mr. Montoya saved his harshest criticism for Mr. Mincberg, who the inspector general said threatened agents with charges of wrongdoing.
"They viewed that as a veiled threat," Mr. Montoya told the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.
Mr. Montoya said later in the investigation, Mr. Mincberg sought to water down the department's anti-lobbying rules after Congress inquired about Mr. Jones' initial email.
"This series of events illustrate what may happen when senior government officials veer from the course of ethical decision-making, skirt the edges, and act in a manner that is not in the government's best interest," Mr. Montoya said.
The chairman of the panel's investigative subcommittee, Rep. Patrick McHenry, requested the IG investigation last summer. Democrats and Republicans alike appeared deeply troubled by the IG findings, and several questioned Mr. Montoya about what sorts of sanctions Mr. Mincberg and others could face.
The Justice Department declined to open a criminal probe, but both the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Special Council are conducting their own investigations. The OSC enforces rules prohibiting political activity in the federal workplace. Meanwhile, HUD could dole out administrative sanctions such as suspension or firing, but that hasn't happened so far.
Serious sanctions aren't a sure thing in such cases. The Federal Times reported on 21 cases referred by the Education Department's Inspector General for potential Hatch Act violations involving political activity in the workplace.
The OSC found only six violations and declined to discipline any. In five of those cases, the Education Department called for counseling as an administrative sanction.
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