The Ethics Watchdog Making Democrats Squirm

Leo Wise's leadership of the Office of Congressional Ethics has become a lightning rod for Democratic complaints about his aggressive pursuit of corruption

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Melissa Golden for TIME

Congressman Charles Rangel

It's safe to say that Leo Wise has made more enemies than friends in his two years on Capitol Hill. But as staff director and general counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), maybe that's the point.

Wise's leadership of the two-year-old independent office has rubbed many Democrats the wrong way now that two unprecedented ethics trials — of Charles Rangel, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and of Maxine Waters, senior member of the House committee that oversees banking — are slated to take place just weeks ahead of the midterm elections. Democrats came into power promising to "clean out the swamp," as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, and in some respects they have been true to their word; the OCE has investigated more than 60 cases thus far, referring 12 to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for further review. But the airing of so much dirty laundry before an election already fueled by anti-Washington fervor is about the last thing Democrats want.

Caught in the crosshairs are Wise and the OCE. The office was created as a watchdog — it doesn't take complaints, but rather monitors the news and investigates when it sees problems arise. The investigations have to rise to a three-level standard of proof before they are voted on by the office's independent board — made up of mostly former members of Congress — to refer the matter to the House ethics committee for further investigation. The standard, says Wise, "is important because it protects all parties involved against essentially the board recommending further action based on partisan affiliation or other impermissible factors."

Still, members of Congress have complained that the OCE's reports are written more as an indictment than a straight reading of the facts. They point to Wise's prosecutorial background — before joining the OCE, he worked for the Justice Department, where he helped successfully litigate 12 cases against some of the nation's worst white collar baddies, including Qwest's Joe Nacchio and Enron's Jeffrey Skilling. Although the House ethics committee can decide whether it will investigate further, even if it refuses, critics say, the OCE's report remains fodder for the press. "The referral [to the ethics committee] itself can be very embarrassing to the member," says Brian Svoboda, an attorney with Perkins Coie, who has represented members before the committee. "The rules say they're not supposed to draw a conclusion."

But reformers say even those dead-end investigations have served the public. A February report on dubious earmarks in the Pentagon budget process prompted the House to ban earmarks directly tailored for private companies. OCE investigations also led Indiana Republican Mark Souder to admit an affair with a staffer and resign. And though the Rangel case is still pending, the OCE report has already led to a ban on earmarks for "monuments to me" nonprofits like the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York (for which Rangel secured $1.9 million in government funds). "Our report is just fact-finding," insists Wise. "My position is that facts don't tarnish people's reputations. Facts are facts."

Wise, 33, was picked as staff director when the OCE was formed, in 2008. A New Jersey native who put himself through Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School, he had a clerkship with Judge Jan DuBois of the U.S. District Court for the eastern district of Pennsylvania before moving with his young wife and grandmother to Washington. Colleagues say Wise is like an earnest Boy Scout — full of noble intentions and dreams of making a difference, says Colleen Conry, a former Justice Department colleague and now a partner at Ropes & Gray. Conry recalls that after Wise's grandmother fell ill, she moved in with the newlyweds, living with them from 2004 until her death in 2008. "That was so him, always doing the right thing without any concern about how it impacts his life," she says.

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