Ethics probe of Murphy a long shot

Washington –– Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon deftly kept an embarrassing story about her rival — Rep. Chris Murphy — in the spotlight Monday by filing an ethics complaint about a “sweetheart” mortgage deal, but the charges aren’t likely to go anywhere, analysts say.

The reason for this is that there has to be a certain level of proof for a congressional investigation to go forward — and that’s often hard to find — as well as consensus between Democratic and Republican appointees of an ethics board.

McMahon’s campaign accuses Murphy of violating the House ethics code, saying he violated the House gift rule by accepting a favor from a bank.

McMahon’s campaign manager, Corry Bliss, filed allegations of wrongdoing with the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which investigates such claims and determines whether they should be considered by the House Ethics Committee.

McMahon’s campaign tore a page out of former Sen. Chris Dodd’s scandal book by insisting that Murphy received a “sweetheart deal” on a second mortgage soon after his election to the House of Representatives, where he was assigned a seat on the Financial Services Committee.

But in Dodd’s case, the senator admitted he received special treatment when he secured mortgages from Countrywide Mortgage, and Senate investigators had at their disposal 18,000 pages of documents that proved it.

In Murphy’s case the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which received the McMahon campaign’s complaint, does not have subpoena power to find out whether he received special treatment from a bank because he is a member of Congress.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog, said it was clear in Dodd’s case that Countrywide Mortgage had a VIP program for lawmakers. “Everybody knew Countrywide was trying to do things for political reasons,” Sloan said. “But that’s not the case here.”

At the center of McMahon’s allegations is the charge that Murphy received a second mortgage from  Webster Bank at a favorable interest rate, even though he had recently defaulted on the primary mortgage he had taken out from the bank to buy a home in Cheshire.

But Webster Bank said the interest rate, 4.99 percent, was nearly a point higher than their most favorable rate for a second mortgage.

Sloan called McMahon’s complaint “just a campaign stunt.”

“They don’t really have any evidence he did anything,” she said.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato agreed with Sloan that there may be more smoke than fire to the complaint.

“My general rule is that most things that happen at the height of the political season are political, at least in large part,” Sabato said. “Maybe there is substance to the complaint, too, but the timing naturally is a bit suspicious.”

The Murphy campaign said there was no wrongdoing and called McMahon’s allegations “a desperate ethics attack filled with lies.”

Sloan said other charges McMahon has leveled at Murphy in the ethics complaint — including one that linked his vote for a massive bailout of all U.S. banks to his mortgage deal — are not credible.

Sloan also said that investigators would have to determine whether Murphy — whose credit history may have been hurt by his default — was treated differently than anyone else in obtaining his second mortgage.

Then they would have to determine if that treatment was aimed at influencing a member of Congress, and not a result of Murphy’s personal relationship with a bank he had represented as an attorney.

“That (personal relationship) would be a permissible reason for a gift,” Sloan said.

Even if the Office of Congressional Ethics finds no grounds for an investigation, the ethics complaint may dog Murphy until Election Day in November.

“McMahon is doing a good job of keeping Murphy on the defensive, and when you are not on the offensive in politics, you could very well be losing,” Sabato said.

There is, however, a chance that the ethics office will dismiss the charges against Murphy before Election Day.

The OCE was established by the House of Representatives in March 2008 to give greater transparency to the House ethics investigation process and try to shield it from partisan politics.

The eight members of the OCE board, chosen by Democratic and Republican House leaders, are private citizens and cannot serve as members of Congress or work for the federal government.

The OCE receives dozens of allegations of wrongdoing each year, but acts on very few of them.

From Jan. 1 to June 30, the OCE began investigations on 32 cases, studied them and if they failed to meet certains standards of proof, dismissed them. The OCE sent only 10 to the House Ethics Committee for further action in that period.

Two board members must agree to take up a case, and four board members can agree to dismiss a complaint at any time.

The OCE is also barred from sending a case to the House Ethics Committee within 60 days of an election. The McMahon complaint was filed Sept. 7, just inside that window. But that’s a moot point since the OCE takes at least 90 days to complete an investigation.

If the OCE finds enough evidence of wrongdoing to recommend Murphy’s case to the House Ethics Committee, many more months would elapse before a final judgment.

In Dodd’s case, the Senate Ethics Committee spent more than a year investigating before determining there was “no credible evidence” that the former Connecticut senator knowingly sought out a special loan or treatment because of his position.