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Possible ethics investigation of House Dems – or maybe not

The 25-hour sit-in protest on the floor of the House of Representatives last week by Democrats has raised ethics concerns over members’ fundraising efforts during the event – but there is no decision or even a timetable yet for an investigation.

A conservative-leaning watchdog group,  Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), filed a investigation request on Monday with the House Office of Congressional Ethics, alleging that Democratic congressmen improperly tried to raise funds while acting in a legislative capacity and using House resources.

Several Democrats staged the sit-in to demand a vote on gun control legislation after the mass shootings at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 people and wounded 53. The protest ended on Thursday after House Republican leaders abruptly adjourned the chamber instead of continuing to struggle with the Democrats.

The House Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent, non-partisan eight-member board of directors who are specifically not members of Congress. It is separate from the House Ethics Committee, which is staffed by lawmakers.

Under the office’s rules, at least two board members must vote to start an investigation lasting approximately 30 days, and then a second vote to continue the inquiry for another 45 days. At that point, a third approval vote is required to send any results of the investigation to the House Ethics Committee. Approximately one-third of investigation requests make it that far.

Because the process is confidential until and unless it is sent to the Ethics Committee, there is no publicly announced decision to launch an investigation.

“Ethics rules prevent Representatives from soliciting campaign or political contributions that are tied to any actions they take in their official capacity,” FACT said on Monday. “This rule ensures that Representatives act in good faith and on merit, and not for personal or political gain. Yet last week, Representatives sent fundraising emails while on the House floor that discussed the sit-in they were staging and asked for campaign contributions.”

The complaint specifically names four lawmakers, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi as well as members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. At least one Democrat, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, sent out an email directly requesting campaign donations, the complaint states.

But it isn’t just conservatives crying foul – one of the Democrats who led the protest also says the fundraising was inappropriate. Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, a former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told the Hartford Courant he regrets the move.

“Frankly, I wish they hadn’t,” Larson said of his colleagues. “I don’t think they should have.”

The fundraising efforts gave House Speaker Paul Ryan an opportunity to label the protest as a political stunt late last week. “If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off of it?” he told reporters.

Democrats have said they intend to resume their protest when the House reconvenes next Tuesday, prompting GOP leaders to consider their own steps to keep the chamber running.

The House ethics manual states: "The House buildings, and House rooms and offices – including district offices – are supported with official funds and hence are considered official resources. Accordingly, as a general rule, they may not be used for the conduct of campaign or political activities. Thus, for example, a Member may not film a campaign commercial or have campaign photos taken in a congressional office."

Besides Lujan’s email, several Democrats broadcast images and footage of themselves on social media including Facebook and Periscote – another potential violation of House rules.

Some Democrats aren’t waiting until next week to keep the protest in front of the public. Organizers of the protest have called for a “national day of action” on Wednesday to focus attention on Republican reluctance to take up the issue of gun violence.

Specifically, Democrats are pushing for legislation to expand background checks and prohibit suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms. To that end, a group of moderate House Democrats on Friday announced a proposed bill identical to a Senate bill introduced earlier last week by Susan Collins of Maine. It would restrict firearms purchases by Americans on certain no-fly lists but not a broader, consolidated federal terrorist watch list.