Audit D.C. Notes: Ethics in The Hill, Lobbyists Not on the Hill, New Sheriff in Town, Part IV

The Hill did good work breaking the news that a House ethics office “is demanding fundraising information from lobbyists on five Republicans and three Democrats.”

According to The Hill, the Office of Congressional Ethics is asking K Street offices to provide “fundraising and campaign contribution data … dating back to the beginning of last year.”

While The Hill was first with the story, it didn’t get too far in explaining just what the ethics watchdog is looking for, simply noting that “two GOP members indicated the reason has to do with the financial regulatory reform bill that passed the House last year.”

The WSJ credited The Hill with being first to the story, and moved it forward a bit:

A congressional ethics office has begun examining eight House lawmakers to see if there were improper links between campaign fund-raising and the financial regulatory overhaul bill still before Congress, according to lawmakers.

The NYT also gave The Hill its due, and saw the story moving in a similar direction:

A Congressional ethics watchdog body is investigating whether as many as eight House members may have improperly shifted their positions on a bill to overhaul financial regulations in return for campaign contributions.

But the Times also added some intrigue that it didn’t do enough to explain:

One Congressional official said the details of the inquiry might have been leaked as part of an effort to embarrass the Office of Congressional Ethics.

The NYT story mentions that some House members don’t like the ethics office because of “what they claim is its willingness to tarnish reputations.” But that doesn’t explain why leaking news of the current investigation would help that cause, or any other.

All the stories include the requisite cautions about how the investigation itself doesn’t mean that any of the lawmakers have done anything wrong. But as long as that’s a possibility, this is a story that bears close watching.

—Also on the lobbying beat, The Wall Street Journal grabbed my attention with this headline:

Lobbyists Can’t Get in Door

Wall Street Finds It Hard to Reach Lawmakers to Lobby on Financial Overhaul

But the story doesn’t quite deliver that punch.

Instead, one unnamed bank grumbles that it’s having a hard time:

One bank has complained that it no longer has access to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D., Mass.), whose schedule has filled up to accommodate negotiations with his Senate counterparts during the next two weeks.

Possible alternate hed: “Lawmaker too busy working to meet with lobbyist, lobbyist says.”

There’s also this, about how the busy work of writing legislation is wreaking havoc on the fundraising schedule:

Mr. Frank and the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.), also have postponed scheduled fund-raising events since the conference held its first meeting on Thursday. Messrs. Frank and Bachus are among 43 lawmakers responsible for hammering out differences in the bill, which will have a broad impact on how banks are regulated and do business.

Worth noting? Sure. Proof that lobbyists can’t get in the door? No.

The Washington Post does a nice job of covering some outside-the-box hires at the SEC who are supposed to help the agency sort out those “complex markets” that have proven elusive in the not-too-distant past.

As we’ve said before, these new-sheriff-on-town pieces are a business press staple. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them—but they don’t quite count as serious and sustained regulatory coverage.

That said, Gregg Berman, a Princeton-trained nuclear physicist, sounds like a pretty interesting guy to be working at the SEC, trying to sort out what sent the stock market into madness last month:

For Berman, 43, his SEC job in many ways is a far cry from the late nights he spent conducting experiments at Princeton’s particle accelerator in preparation for his doctoral thesis, “The Study of the Beta Decay Spectrum of Sulfur-35.” But in other ways, it’s not.

“Experimental physics is about drawing conclusions from very messy data,” said Berman, who started doing financial analysis after receiving his PhD. “And finance and economics and the type of work within the division that I’m at at the SEC is about trying to draw conclusions and make recommendations based on lots of data, data from the marketplace that can be quite messy as well.”

The Post wisely notes that the agency “is having trouble filling out more of its ranks with people with unconventional résumés.”

The challenge, Bookstaber said, is in recruiting undergraduate computer science wizards who might otherwise work for Google or trade for hedge funds. “We have to rely on public spiritedness as opposed to dollars to pull them here.”

The Post does nice work covering those who’ve made the leap. Hopefully now it will cover what they do with those new jobs.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at