Most of the talk in Washington this week has centered around Donald Trump’s reckless and potentially criminal behavior regarding the firing of James Comey and his decision to leak classified information to Russia. But there’s a situation playing out in the House that is almost as outrageous.
Earlier this week, we learned that House Appropriations Committee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen got a bee in his bonnet about one of his staunchest critics in his northern New Jersey district, Saily Avelenda. She is a member of the steering committee of NJ 11th for Change, a grassroots group that has pushed Frelinghuysen to hold an in-person town hall–something he hasn’t done in over four years.
Apparently Avelenda’s criticism bothered Frelinghuysen enough that he wrote a member of the board at the bank where Avelenda worked on campaign stationery. That board member was also a longtime Frelinghuysen donor. Avelenda was forced to write a statement to the bank CEO reaffirming that she was a “friend” of the bank. The ensuing pressure ultimately forced Avelenda to resign. Avelenda was understandably shaken by what she described as “a deliberate act” on Frelinghuysen’s part to track down where she worked, as well as his efforts to use the power of his office to retaliate against her.
On Tuesday, the Campaign for Accountability, an ethics watchdog group, asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Frelinghuysen’s actions. Read the complaint here. It contends that Frelinghuysen’s letter amounted to an official action for personal gain, even though he used campaign stationery to do it–and in so doing, committed conduct that did not “reflect creditably on the House.” CfA also contends that Frelinghuysen’s attempt to pressure Lakeland into reprimanding or firing Avelenda amounted to tortious interference with Avelenda’s business relations.
Ethics experts on both sides of the aisle told NJ Advance Media that Frelinghuysen’s letter may not have been illegal, but still reeks nonetheless. Richard Painter, George W. Bush’s former chief ethics officer, believed that letter was “an awful thing to do,” even if it may be legal. Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause was stunned that a lawmaker would attack someone for merely “exercising her First Amendment beliefs.” Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington said that while he doesn’t think Frelinghuysen broke the law or ethics guidelines, his letter “certainly doesn’t pass the smell test.”
With all due respect, most of those commenting on this issue don’t fully appreciate the seriousness of Frelinghuysen’s actions. A sitting member of Congress saw fit to engage in ugly, nakedly aggressive, and childish retaliation against someone who spoke out against him. And not just any member of Congress, mind you. As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Frelinghuysen oversees the drafting of the 12 laws that fund the government, making him arguably the most powerful man in the House outside of the House Republican leadership.
There are literally no words to express how outrageous this is. This letter was nothing less than a betrayal of one of the most sacred trusts in a democracy–that no one should have to fear that your government will retaliate against you for speaking out. And yet, this has been the response from both sides of the aisle on this issue.
Until Monday, one thing that could be said for the Republican House leadership is that it has usually dropped the hammer on unethical conduct from its members. And yet, the silence on this issue from Paul Ryan on down is deafening. After all, the facts are not in dispute. If the GOP can remain silent on this, then it is truly unfit to govern.
While the Democrats should rightly be turning the hot lights on Trump, it’s beyond belief that Nancy Pelosi and friends haven’t addressed Frelinghuysen’s behavior. Whatever fear they may have over Frelinghuysen’s ability to keep funding from their districts should not overcome the existential nature of this matter.
While any ethics investigation will focus merely on whether Frelinghuysen broke the rules, there is a larger question at play here. Is it acceptable for a lawmaker, regardless of party, to use his position to retaliate against a critic? The answer in any self-respecting democracy should be a resounding “no.”
I initially thought that Frelinghuysen should merely apologize. But the more I thought about it, I wondered–what does it say about Frelinghuysen that he even considered targeting Avelenda? When a congressman even thinks that this is acceptable, it’s time for that congressman to go, and it’s time for him to go now. And I’d be saying that whether it was a Democrat or a Republican. It cannot be repeated enough–no one, regardless of party, should ever have to fear retaliation for speaking out against their elected officials.
If Frelinghuysen has anything left in him, he will personally apologize to Avelenda and her family. Then, he should do us all a favor and resign from the House. Sign this petition to help deliver that message.
(featured image courtesy Frelinghuysen’s congressional office, part of public domain)