Watchdog Group Includes Potential 2020 Dem Candidates on 'Worst Ethics Violators' List

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren / Getty Images
December 17, 2018

A government watchdog group included Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), both potential 2020 presidential candidates, on its newly released list of the "worst ethics violators of 2018."

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT—which describes its mission as "promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government and civic arenas"—on Monday unveiled the list, which includes both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

In October, FACT filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee against Warren and Harris for "improperly soliciting campaign donations." Specifically, the lawmakers sent fundraising emails before the Senate vote on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The campaign emails listed their officials roles and positions on the ongoing confirmation of Kavanaugh, and also included "Donate Now" and "Contribute" buttons, which were direct requests for campaign donations. FACT argued in its complaint that Senate ethics laws prohibit candidates from promising an official action or legislative work while directly asking for campaign cash.

Senators must conduct themselves according to the Senate Ethics rules. Under the Senate Ethics Manual's Scope of The Authority, the Senate "may discipline a Member for any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole." A Senator who solicits campaign contributions related to official action certainly casts an unfavorable reflection on the Senate. In addition, the use of official action for political fundraising is directly related to official duties. Thus, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics is well within the bounds of its Scope of Authority in investigating and ultimately penalizing this type of unethical behavior.

Senate Ethics Rules prohibit Senators from solicitating campaign contributions based upon any action taken in their official capacity. By linking a promise of official action with campaign contributions, a Senator violates a "basic principle" of Senate Ethics that guards against conflicts of interest. The Senate Ethics Manual is clear that a Senator "should never use the prestige or influence of a position in the Senate for personal gain . . . . This provision was intended 'as a broad prohibition against members, officers or employees deriving financial benefit, directly or indirectly, from the use of their official position.'" Moreover, Senators are to act based upon merit, not on partisan affiliation or for campaign contributions.

At the time of the complaint, FACT executive director Kendra Arnold slammed Warren and Harris for "tying official congressional action to campaign fundraising."

"This is a clear violation of the Senate Ethics rules which safeguard against the appearance or actuality of elected officials 'cashing in' on their official position for political purposes," Arnold said.

Warren and Harris have both suggested that they may run for president in 2020.

In addition to Warren and Harris, outgoing Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) was on the list after he was accused of violating Senate ethics rules by improperly disclosing classified information or disseminated false information about allegations of Russian meddling in Florida elections. FACT's list includes multiple other Democrats, as well as Republican leaders in Congress.