Donald Trump supporter benefits from gutting of ethics office in Congress

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) is seen here with Navajo Code Talker Fleming Begaye Sr., in Shiprock, New Mexico, on November 4, 2016. Mullin serves as chair and Begaye serves as honorary chair of Republican Donald Trump's Native American Coalition. Photo: Mullin for U.S. Congress

UPDATE: As the 115th Congress opened on Tuesday afternoon, Republicans in the House changed course and removed the ethics changes from the rules package.

Republican president-elect Donald Trump is lashing out against his party for gutting an ethics office on Capitol Hill but one of his key Indian Country supporters stands to benefit from the controversial move.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has faced an ethics investigation for a little over three years. The probe stems from allegations that he used his public office to benefit his business back home.

Mullin also happens to serve as chairman of Trump's Native American Coalition. Any findings of wrongdoing, or even an exoneration, could prove embarrassing for the Republican lawmaker and the incoming president.

But now that fellow Republicans are planning to weaken an entity known as the Office of Congressional Ethics, Mullin might never have to deal with the issue. Rules that are being adopted in the House on Tuesday would ensure any negative reports never see the light of day.

"With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority," Trump asked in the first of two posts on Twitter on Tuesday morning.

"Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!" Trump concluded, signing the second post with #DTS, or "Drain the Swamp," in reference to his pledge to rid Washington of corruption.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal that saw one member of Congress go to prison in connection with a lobbying scam in which tribes were cheated out of millions of dollars of dollars. It is empowered to release reports about lawmakers even if no formal action is taken against a lawmaker.

The process is changing under an amendment drafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia). The old ethics office will be known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and won't be required to disclose findings to the public. It will fall under the authority of the House Ethics Committee, which has the power to kill any investigation, including the one regarding Mullin, as well as reject any accusations of wrongdoing.

"Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the investigations, the amendment provides strong protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities, and requires that any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the members," Goodlatte said in an opinion published in The Hill on Tuesday.

The investigation into Mullin was publicly disclosed in March 2014 but it started in December 2013. It centers on his appearance in advertising and his use of a weekly radio show to promote his plumbing business in Oklahoma, which he had signed over to his wife following his election in November 2012.

According to a referral released by the Office of Congressional Ethics, Mullin received more than $600,000 in income from the business in 2013, his first full year in Congress. At the time, he never disputed the figure -- or his continued involvement in the company -- but he insisted he did nothing wrong, calling the allegations "entirely meritless."

"This matter should have never come before the committee in an investigative posture," a January 2014 letter from Mullin's attorneys stated.

The office never completed the probe, only saying that it would continue to review the allegations. But the cloud didn't hurt Mullin's re-election campaign in 2014 or his most recent one -- he won with nearly 71 percent of the vote on November 8, 2016.

The changes to the ethics office are included in H.Res.5, which sets the rules for the U.S. House of Representatives for the 115th Congress. The new session began on Tuesday.

Markwayne Mullin Ethics Documents:
Office of Congressional Ethics Referral Regarding Rep. Markwayne Mullin | Office of Congressional Ethics Referral Report | Statement of the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics Regarding Representative Markwayne Mullin | Response from Rep. Markwayne Mullin

House Rules Documents:
Adopting rules for the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress | Section-by-Section Analysis

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