By LARRY MARGASAK
WASHINGTON – The House ethics committee said today it has sanctioned Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., for “serious official misconduct” for accepting improper gifts and favoring a lobbyist but spared him further penalty.
The letter of disapproval was negotiated by Shuster and concludes a three-year investigation surrounding one of Congress’ most influential members. Shuster’s committee controls highway and transportation projects for the nation, giving him tremendous clout among all House members.
“By your actions you have brought discredit to the House of Representatives,” the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct wrote Shuster.
No action will be required by the House as a result of the negotiated settlement, the ethics committee said in announcing its unanimous decision.
Shuster called the committee findings and its critical language “overkill” and contended he “complied with the law and with his understanding of what was right.”
The Congressional Accountability Project, an organization founded by Ralph Nader, had filed the original allegations that there were conflicts of interest between Shuster and Ann M. Eppard, his former chief of staff who became a lobbyist representing transportation clients with business before Shuster’s committee.
The ethics committee found Shuster engaged in a “pattern and practice” of allowing Eppard to appear before him in his official capacity in the year after her resignation from his staff. This “created the appearance that his official decisions might have been improperly affected,” the committee found.
The committee also concluded that Shuster violated standards of conduct by:
_Accepting expenses from two sources related to a trip to Puerto Rico with his family in December 1995 and January 1996.
_Authorizing and/or accepting the scheduling and advisory services of Eppard on official matters for approximately 18 months after she resigned from his congressional office.
_Allowing employees in his congressional office to work for his campaign committee to the “apparent detriment” of the time they were required to spend on congressional business. The employees performed services for his campaign in the congressional office.
_Creating the appearance that between 1993 and 1998 certain expenditures of his campaign committee may not have been attributable to bona fide campaign or political purposes. The appearance was created by “the number and dollar amount” of expenditures for meals designated as “political meetings” and for transportation on chartered aircraft.
Shuster called the committee’s findings “overkill for the charge of causing misguided public perceptions – particularly when those subjective perceptions were contrary to the objective truth. The truth is that – under every statute Congress has adopted to regulate contacts between lobbyists and members – Representative Shuster’s interaction with Ann M. Eppard complied with the law and with his understanding of what was right.”
The response added that Shuster “made every effort to properly account for the expenses of his fact-finding trips” and used campaign funds “for proper purposes and protected the taxpayer from paying a penny for any expense that could just as properly be paid from campaign funds.”
The committee told Shuster in its letter that it was “disturbed not only by the content of your response but by its tone. It is one of blame-shifting and trivializing of misconduct to which you have admitted and which this committee does not and cannot characterize as “de minimis or technical. … You committed substantial violations.”
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