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Lawmakers facing ethics questions have some explaining to do

Four sitting House lawmakers are facing ethics investigations, but Rep. Mike Kelly's controversy stands out.

When it comes to members of Congress with legal troubles, two House Republicans — Nebraska's Jeff Fortenberry and Florida's Matt Gaetz — dominated the headlines last week. The former is now facing multiple federal charges after allegedly lying to the FBI, while the investigation into the latter appears to be intensifying.

Generating less attention was a set of findings from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which referred several sitting lawmakers to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation. The list of allegations wasn't short, though one stood out for me.

Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota, for example, has been accused of directing contracts to companies owned by relatives of his aides. Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey has been accused of failing to fully disclose stock trades. Republican Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia, meanwhile, has been accused of using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses.

But perhaps most notable are the allegations against Republican Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania. As the New York Times reported, the controversy relates to a steel company with a plant in the congressman's district.

Mr. Kelly's case involves a frantic effort to aid the steel plant that employs 1,400 people in his district after it was acquired last year by Cleveland-Cliffs. The chief executive of Cleveland-Cliffs publicly testified that unless the federal government was able to provide his company with additional trade protections, it would shutter that plant, as well as one in Ohio. Investigators found that Mr. Kelly became personally involved in Cleveland-Cliffs's efforts to lobby the White House, pressing officials at the Commerce Department, as well as Mark Meadows, then President Donald J. Trump's chief of staff, to enact additional protections.

At face value, none of this seems especially controversial. Members of Congress routinely make efforts to assist major employers in their districts.

In fact, in this instance, Kelly's work paid off: On April 28, 2020, the Trump administration's Commerce Department alerted the company to an investigation that would benefit the business, and Cleveland-Cliffs executives soon after canceled planned layoffs. Not surprisingly, the GOP congressman welcomed the good news.

The trouble is what happened the day after. Roll Call reported:

The next day, on April 29, Kelly's wife, Victoria, bought between $15,001 and $50,000 in Cleveland-Cliffs securities.... Victoria bought the Cleveland-Cliffs stock at $4.70 per share and sold it on Jan. 11, 2021, at $18.11 per share, resulting in a profit.

According to the Office of Congressional Ethics, the congressman's wife made the investment before the Commerce Department publicly announced its course of action, and just after her husband "learned confidential information about the company." Investigators added that the stock purchase was "uncharacteristic" and "represented a sharp departure from her investment behavior."

A spokesperson for the congressman said last fall that Kelly's wife made “a small investment to show her support for the workers and management of this 100-year-old bedrock of their hometown.” The New York Times' report added that the spokesperson "did not explain why Mrs. Kelly did not publicly disclose the purchase at the time, if her intent was to show solidarity with the company."

Each of the four members facing the ethics scrutiny, including Kelly, has denied any wrongdoing. House Ethics Committee investigations are both private and time consuming, so we may not hear the outcomes of these reviews anytime soon.