Gianforte unlikely to face discipline if elected, ethics expert says

The House Ethics Committee has jurisdiction over current members of Congress.

ByABC News
May 25, 2017, 6:38 PM

— -- The alleged body slam of a Guardian reporter by a GOP candidate for Congress in Montana created a national firestorm and prompted a misdemeanor assault charge as well as condemnations from press advocacy groups.

But if Greg Gianforte prevails in the Big Sky State's special election Thursday night, would he face any consequences as a member of Congress?

The short answer is probably not, since Gianforte’s troubles occurred before he would be sworn in as a U.S. representative. The House Ethics Committee has jurisdiction over current members of the House, but not necessarily congressional candidates.

Rob Walker, a former staff director at both the House and Senate ethics committees, says he believes Congress would likely find that since Gianforte’s alleged offense was widely publicized and occurred before the election, the committee would not pursue an investigation.

“If elected, I don’t think [Gianforte] would be subject to investigation or discipline based on this conduct,” Walker told ABC News. “If he wins in spite of this, the voters have spoken.”

While Walker acknowledges there is no specific rule to prohibit the ethics committee from opening a probe, the rules do allow for some flexibility to examine a congressional candidate’s behavior that was initially unknown but later revealed.

That sort of investigation into a member’s actions preceding his or her tenure in Congress are generally to safeguard against revelations of inappropriate actions in the course of seeking office -- such as campaign fraud. Even if Gianforte is convicted of misdemeanor assault, such an offense probably would not prompt an investigation, according to Walker.

“There is nothing specific that says they couldn’t reach back,” Walker, who currently works as counsel at Wiley Rein LLP, said. “What’s the new news if he’s convicted? The conduct occurred beforehand. The consequence [of a conviction] shouldn’t give the committee additional grounds for taking up this matter.”

House rules state that the ethics committee may examine whether a member of Congress violated "any law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct applicable to the conduct of such Member” in the performance or the discharge of his or her responsibilities.

While an investigation is unlikely, if the ethics committee ultimately determines Gianforte violated House rules, he could face a range of disciplinary actions from the House, including a letter of reproval, a formal letter of reprimand, censure or even expulsion. He could also face a fine.

Gianforte is hoping to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who resigned from Congress to accept an appointment as Secretary of the Interior.

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