- Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina faces a congressional ethics complaint.
- The complaint alleges he violated ethics rules by providing gifts and money loans a staffer.
- But internal congressional investigations are notoriously slow and opaque.
Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina is facing a flurry of alleged ethics violations related to his personal finances and increasingly erratic behavior.
A member of Cawthorn’s own party — Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina — has even called on congressional investigators to target the freshman congressman.
But don’t count on Congress to act swiftly, if it acts at all.
That’s because Congress’ internal ethics investigations process is notoriously slow and opaque, often lasting many months. And if a member of Congress resigns or loses re-election in the midst of a congressional investigation — both plausible outcomes for Cawthorn — the House Committee on Ethics will cease any effort.
Congress does little to hold members of Congress and congressional staffers accountable when they conduct investigations, says Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government affairs manager of Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
“The track record of the ethics committees in both chambers is really being largely impotent and largely useless when it comes to these things,” he said.
He added that “because everyone knows that the ethics committees are not really going to do anything” then it can incentivize members of Congress and congressional staffs to keep violating congressional ethics rules.
If a member of Congress are found to have violated house ethics rules, then there can be a number of penalties ranging from a letter of reprimand, all the way up to censure, says Kedric Payne, a former deputy chief counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Censure is a formal statement of disapproval carried out on the House floor. The House Speaker usually reads a resolution condemning a lawmaker’s actions and then the lawmaker has to stand and listen to it.
In extreme cases, the US Constitution grants Congress the right to expel a sitting lawmaker — something that’s only happened five times, according to House records. The most recent expulsion came in 2002, when Congress kicked Rep. James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, out of the US House.
Payne, now with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said the outcomes of a formal congressional investigation could also lead to congressional leadership applying pressure to push out the members of Congress or forcing them to resign.
But Congress may also dismiss an investigation without any adverse action against one of its own.
On Friday, Cawthorn’s office responded to Insider’s questions about his ethics situation with a tweet.
“I believe in some pretty aggressive government reforms. I want to change the GOP for the better, and I believe in America First,” he wrote. “I can understand the establishment attacking those beliefs, but just digging stuff up from my early 20s to smear me is pathetic.”
Earlier this week, David Wheeler, the president of American Muckrakers PAC, a political action committee advocating to remove Cawthorn from office, filed an ethics complaint against the Republican lawmaker.
The complaint accuses Cawthorn of violating US House ethics rules by allegedly providing free housing and gifts to Stephen Smith, one of his staff members. It also alleges that Cawthorn and Smith failed to properly file financial disclosures on these alleged gifts and money loans the North Carolina lawmaker gave to Smith.
It also accuses Cawthorn of violating ethics rules by attempting to bring a loaded gun through an airport security checkpoint.
Meanwhile, it appears Cawthorn separately violated the federal Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act by failing to report his stake in a cryptocurrency named for the anti-Joe Biden slogan “Let’s Go Brandon.”
The ethics complaint filed against Cawthorn comes after The Daily Mail published a story on a video that shows Cawthorn in a car with another man, who was reportedly Smith, Cawthorn’s scheduler.
In the video, Cawthorn says, “I feel the passion and desire, and would like to see a naked body beneath my hands.”
In response, the man says, “Me too. I’d like to see that as well,” and then shows the man putting his hand on the lawmaker’s groin.
Cawthorn has faced attacked by members of his own party, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, after he claimed he was invited to a orgy in Washington by Republican lawmakers and witnessed drug use.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics is designed to investigate allegations of misconduct when they receive complaints or notice of alleged ethics violations. In most cases, the office will make their investigations public, if they believe wrongdoing occurred.
If the Office of Congressional Ethics conducts an investigation — something that often takes several months — they will then report their findings to the House Committee on Ethics with a recommendation of whether to “further review” or “dismiss the matter,” according to its website.
There have been recent cases of the House Committee on Ethics launching investigations into alleged financial impropriety or inappropriate relationships between members of Congress and their staff members.
In 2019, former Rep. Katie Hill, a first-term Democratic representative from California, resigned following allegations that she had a inappropriate sexual relationship with a staffer.
Since October, the House Committee on Ethics has been reviewing an Office of Congressional Ethics report that Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, failed to properly disclose dozens of stock trades together worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.
But the limits of the House Committee on Ethics’ jurisdiction was made clear earlier this month, when it stopped an investigation into now-former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, who was convicted in March on three charges related to a campaign finance scandal.
“The Investigative Subcommittee and the Committee no longer have jurisdiction over him. The Committee considers this matter closed,” the House Committee on Ethics wrote April 1.