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Ethics watchdog recommended that John Lewis' top aide be subpoenaed

WASHINGTON -- Congress' nonpartisan watchdog recommended that the House Ethics Committee subpoena Michael Collins, U.S. Rep. John Lewis' longtime chief of staff, and the Atlanta Democrat's campaign committee after alleging they did not fully comply with an ethics inquiry this spring, according to newly released documents.

The recommendation came at the tail end of a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, which concluded that it had "substantial reason to believe" that Collins may have broken ethics rules that bar senior congressional staffers from serving as campaign officers and from making more than a certain amount of money for outside work.

"If Mr. Collins received compensation for providing services to the campaign committee that involved a fiduciary relationship or served for compensation as an officer of the campaign committee, then he may have violated House rules and federal law," the OCE's report concludes.

The office alleged that Collins and Lewis' campaign committee "refused to cooperate with the OCE review" by declining to provide all of the information requested by their lawyers and hence a subpoena was warranted.

The report was penned earlier this spring but released for the first time Wednesday by the House Ethics Committee, which announced it was continuing its review of the allegations against Collins. A spokesman for the committee declined to comment.

The documents acknowledged for the first time, albeit indirectly, that the OCE told the Ethics Committee to investigate Collins for allegations first levied by the conservative watchdog group the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT. The group argued back in January that Collins was improperly employed as Lewis' chief of staff and campaign treasurer during the 2016 cycle and that he made more than the maximum $27,225 in outside income permitted for senior staff on Capitol Hill.

“As a House employee, we expect him to put the citizens first,” said Kendra Arnold, FACT’s general counsel. “When you’re a paid fiduciary for some other organization, that conflicts with it.”

Collins' lawyer Robert Charrow argued that Collins' role as campaign treasurer was "mischaracterize(d)" by the OCE in a July 7 letter to the Ethics Committee. Charrow said Collins was serving in a volunteer capacity, which made the appointment a "proper" one.

Collins was paid for his work as a campaign consultant, Charrow said, which was kosher. After the campaign erroneously overpaid him by $295, Collins paid back the excess money, according to Charrow.

“Michael Collins made a simple and minor arithmetic error by allowing the campaign to pay him $295 more than is permitted under the House Rules. For this, he accepts responsibility and has remedied the overpayment,” Charrow said. He also argued that OGE's argument that Collins was Lewis' de facto campaign chairman was "baseless.”

The letter did not address the subpoena, nor did Collins respond to an email about the subject.

The Ethics Committee said in a press release that its investigation of Collins "does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred."

Collins, who has been Lewis' top aide for 17 years, was cited by the same committee in 2011 for failing to list $54,000 he made in consulting fees on his income tax returns and finance disclosure reports.

“These mistakes were not intentional but were due to an inadvertent omission in disclosure,” Collins said at the time.

Read more: 

Ethics group says its complaint likely prompted inquiry into John Lewis’ top aide

House Ethics appears to be investigating John Lewis’ top aide

Conservative group files ethics complaint against John Lewis, top aide

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.