IN THE NEWS: Congressman Messer hit with ethics complaint and “embarrassment” as potential pay-to-play allegations emerge

INDIANAPOLIS – Congressman Messer is newly under fire after reports yesterday about pay-for-play allegations surrounding his campaign. An ethics complaint filed earlier this week claims that Congressman Messer wrote a letter to the Federal Reserve on behalf of a constituent that was out of the ordinary for its aggressive tone, and two weeks later, the man made a donation to his campaign, WTHR reported—his first political contribution in nearly a decade.

The new complaint means that Congressman Messer and Congressman Rokita both have ethics complaints filed against each other in the last month alone. Another complaint was recently filed against Congressman Rokita over claims by several official staffers that they were compelled to do “volunteer” political work, a potential misuse of taxpayer resources.

From WTHR: Small donation raises big questions for Indiana Congressman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WTHR) – A campaign contribution to Rep. Luke Messer (R – Indiana) is the focus of a federal ethics complaint filed this week on Capitol Hill. The complaint alleges Messer violated federal law and Congressional rules by accepting a $500 donation in exchange for assisting a Muncie businessman.

“It certainly doesn’t look good,” said Peter Murphy, director of University of Indianapolis Center for Ethics. “The appearance of a conflict of interest is worrisome because it erodes trust, and clearly Congress needs to do things right now to regain trust.”

This week, the Office of Congressional Ethics received a formal ethics complaint, requesting an investigation into a $500 donation that Cook made to Messer’s campaign committee. The donation was made on March 31 – just two weeks after Messer wrote his letter to the Federal Reserve – and it was filed by watchdog group American Oversight.

“This contribution is very suspicious and merits further inquiry,” said American Oversight senior advisor Melanie Sloan, who wrote the complaint. “Members of Congress may not accept campaign contributions in response to their official actions, and that’s really what this looks like. It looks like the bank appreciated Congressman Messer’s efforts on its behalf, and so he was given a campaign contribution to thank him. That’s considered pay-to-play and that’s not allowed.”

The complaint alleges the contribution is a potential violation of a federal illegal gratuity statute, which prohibits a public official from seeking or receiving anything of value for an official action taken by the official. House ethics rules prohibit the same activity.

Sloan says the political donation is also unusual because, according to a database of federal campaign contributions, the $500 contribution to Messer represents the first donation Cook has made to a federal lawmaker in nearly a decade.

Murphy, director of the University of Indianapolis Center for Ethics, believes the case does raise important questions.

“I think this raises concerns about Rep. Messer’s conduct,” Murphy said. “Two weeks after is quite recent, so it’s very natural to ask the question: Why is he giving the money at that time? It could be pure coincidence, having nothing to do with the kind acts Rep. Messer did for him, but we have no compelling reason to think it’s a pure coincidence. And even if it were purely coincidence, it doesn’t look good.”

He said Messer’s acceptance of the $500 donation is problematic, even if it does not violate any rules.

“The concern that people are going to have about the case is whether there was some type of understanding — perhaps even unspoken — between Rep. Messer and Mr. Cook that if he wrote the letter on behalf of Mutual Bank to the Federal Reserve, that there would be a favor in return. We have no evidence that took place, but on the other hand we don’t have any evidence that did not take place, so that lack of evidence is going to erode trust and confidence in what Rep. Messer is doing. We need to be reassured that that type of thing did not happen, and citizens are not required to accept things on blind faith.”

Helmke did agree with American Oversight in expressing concern about the Congressman’s appeal to the Federal Reserve on Cook’s behalf.

“The letter seems over the top for what you’d usually see in a letter like this. It’s so far beyond what you’d expect, it raises the question: who really wrote the letter? Asking for or even suggesting reimbursement to the bank by the Fed steps over the line. That’s not a good way to handle communications with an independent agency, and the Fed is meant to be outside politics.”

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