The Office of Congressional Ethics had logged fewer than 350 complaints, questions or other contacts from the public from early 2009, when it began its work, through March.
So it was something of a surprise when the congressionally mandated, bipartisan office announced in its quarterly report Tuesday that it received 2,000 submissions from the public from April through June. And 1,700 of them “concerned a single issue involving the executive branch.”
While OCE officials declined to comment beyond what was written in the report, the filings coincide with an Internet campaign to demand the agency investigate whether the Obama administration improperly offered Rep. Joe Sestak a potential job to coax him out of a Democratic primary bid against Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Mr. Sestak declined the offer and in May defeated Mr. Specter, who had the support of the White House.
Republican lawmakers have called for the Justice Department to investigate the job offer. The Obama administration has denied any wrongdoing.
A website aligned with the “tea party” movement, ResistNet.com, urged its readers on May 27 to file complaints with the OCE, which investigates allegations of misconduct by House members and staffers.
ResistNet.com calls itself the “Home of the Patriotic Resistance.”
“Pass the information on to all conservative groups so they can join in the call for an investigation, too. Let’s make this one loud voice of the grass-roots conservative tea partying movement,” a post on the group’s website said.
The ethics office, which has a staff of 10, accepts complaints from the public and can refer its investigative findings to the House ethics committee for possible disciplinary action. The OCE, which is headed by a bipartisan eight-person board, lacks subpoena power.
The Sestak job offer would appear to be beyond its jurisdiction since it involves the actions of the Obama administration or the executive branch.
The White House has acknowledged that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel enlisted former President Bill Clinton to discuss with Mr. Sestak whether he would consider dropping out of the primary while letting it be known that the congressman would be in line for a nonpaying post on an executive branch advisory board. Mr. Sestak said he immediately declined the offer.
Mr. Sestak faces Republican former Rep. Pat Toomey in the November election.
OCE communications director Jon Steinman declined to comment.
Last May, the OCE showed its independence by asking the Justice Department to investigate whether campaign donations by clients of a now-defunct lobbying firm played a role in the award of earmarks, or special spending requests, by members of a House Appropriations subcommittee for the firm’s clients’ projects.
The OCE’s board, in a statement, said it voted unanimously to refer evidence to the Justice Department gathered during an investigation “concerning appropriations earmarks” involving the PMA Group, which was raided by FBI agents in November 2008 and is now the focus of a grand jury investigation.
The referral was in conflict with a decision in February by the House ethics committee, which cleared House Appropriations defense subcommittee members of any wrongdoing in their award of earmarks to help fund projects by PMA clients. The ethics committee had ruled there was no proof the lawmakers had traded earmarks for campaign donations.