Politics

Classified Information Complicates Nunes Ethics Probe

Results of investigation may not be revealed at all

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes is currently the subject of an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The outcome of an ethics investigation surrounding House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’ disclosure of classified information might never see the light of day, depending on how it’s handled.

The results of that inquiry by the House Ethics Committee may not be revealed for months — or at all — because it centers around disclosure of classified information, ethics experts say.

“The ability to talk about this investigation could be impaired by the fact that we’re talking about classified information and some of it is still not yet public,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics counsel under former President George W. Bush

[Paul Ryan Defends Devin Nunes on Russia Probe]

Outside groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, say they have referred the matter to a separate agency tasked with investigating House members — the Office of Congressional Ethics, which could guarantee an eventual public reveal of the inquiry results.

While the OCE does not reveal it is conducting an investigation until certain timelines are met, it does consider each request it receives.

The course of action either of the probes could take may vary, given the strange and sometimes entangled mechanisms by which the Ethics Committee and the OCE operate.

But last week’s unprecedented announcement by House Ethics that it was conducting an independent probe of Nunes’ actions may be a sign the notoriously secretive panel acknowledges the unique amount of scrutiny on the situation. 

As a result, Painter said the investigation could lead to the committee deciding to declassify information.

Nunes, a California Republican, was heavily criticized after he told reporters at the White House on March 22 that he had reviewed “intelligence reports” indicating that members of President Donald Trump’s campaign had been swept up in foreign surveillance by U.S. spy agencies.

[GOP, White Stick With Devin Nunes]

Those remarks came two days after his panel held its first public hearing on Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s election, which featured testimony from FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers.

Nunes said the surveillance that he disclosed was separate from the Russia investigation. But his public announcement of the incidental collection was met with criticism after he failed to brief his own committee members first.

After caving to pressure, the eight-term congressman announced April 6 that he would step away from leading the Russia investigation while the Ethics panel inquiry into his potential disclosure of classified information was underway.

In a statement the same day, the committee said it would “refrain from making further public statements on this matter pending completion of its initial review.”

But the Nunes investigation falls under a section of committee rules that provides no time frame for when an inquiry must be completed or a public statement made. So there’s no guarantee the public will learn of the panel’s findings. 

If the OCE conducts a review, then refers the matter to the Ethics Committee, a report of the OCE’s findings is required to be made public within 90 days.

Typically, the OCE does not know what the Ethics Committee is looking into, but it may still conduct a concurrent investigation. The independent congressional watchdog also does not acknowledge cases it is investigating before the committee makes a public comment.

While the OCE is largely unpopular with lawmakers — Republicans recently tried to undermine the office by attempting to cut or eliminate its funding or put limits to what it can do — it provides the only surefire way for an ethics probe to be publicized.

Painter said the uniqueness of the Nunes probe involving classified information complicates what could be disclosed in the public sphere, and how, no matter who is conducting an investigation.

“This could be a problem,” he said. “We’ll have to see where this leads.”

Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.