The Catholic University of America




 Jo Marie St. Martin, General Counsel for the Speaker of the House of Representatives.


General Counsel to U.S. House of Representatives Discusses Ethics with Students




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What actions are considered unethical by a member of Congress? What happens when a lawmaker becomes a lawbreaker?
Those were among the issues explained by Jo Marie St. Martin, General Counsel for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, in a talk with Catholic University law school students on Oct. 23rd.
Invited to speak at the Columbus School of Law by the Council of Professional Conduct and the Communications Law Students Association, St. Martin spent an hour giving a broad overview titled “Behind the Curtain of Government Ethics,” a talk that examined the legal ethics issues that may arise when working for the federal government.
St. Martin, who has also served as chief of legislative operations for House Speaker John Boehner since his election to the post in 2011, began by tracing her boss’s rise to power. Boehner’s ability to get along with people, she said, is partly the result of being one of twelve children. As Boehner ascended the steps to the Speaker’s office, St. Martin found her own role evolving as well.
“My role has become much more of a legal role as he has gone up the House leadership ladder,” said St. Martin.
St. Martin noted that Boehner’s stellar conduct during the House banking scandal of 1992 (one that permitted nearly two dozen members of Congress to overdraw their House checking accounts without risk of being penalized by the House bank) helped to get him noticed by the leadership at that time.
Many students were surprised to learn that, although it has certainly adapted with the times, the original code of conduct for members of the House of Representatives was written by Thomas Jefferson, based upon the model from the British House of Commons.
St. Martin explained that the House and Senate have significantly different ethical rules for their members, regulating such things as spending, air travel, accepting gifts, and campaign finances. House members who are found guilty of ethical violations can face a variety of punishments, from expulsion, to censure, to an official reprimand.
St. Martin also covered the role of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Established in 2008, the office is an independent, non-partisan entity charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct against members of the House of Representatives and their staff and, when appropriate, referring matters to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly referred to as the Ethics Committee.
The OCE is governed by an eight-person Board of Directors, who are private citizens and cannot serve as members of Congress or work for the federal government. The system represents a significant change from the way Congress has handled accusations of ethical lapses in the past.
“The jury’s still out on whether everything it does is positive or not,” said St. Martin.
She left plenty of time for students’ questions and also urged them to consider a legal career on Capitol Hill.