Ethics panel confirms Schweikert probe; supporters rush to his defense

The House Ethics Committee is reportedly looking into payments by the campaign of Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, to his Capitol Hill chief of staff. (Photo by Katie Bieri/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The House Ethics Committee confirmed Thursday that the Office of Congressional Ethics has referred an investigation of Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, and a legislative aide.

Neither office would confirm the nature of the investigation, but published reports have said the probe involves payments by Schweikert’s campaign committees to a consulting firm run by Oliver Schwab, his chief of staff.

Democratic campaign officials called it proof that Schweikert is part of the “Washington swamp,” but GOP consultants in Arizona were quick to blast the “witch hunt” of a four-term congressman they called “morally and ethically strong.”

“I don’t buy it. I think it is a witch hunt,” said Mike Noble, a political consultant for MBQF Consulting who has worked with both Schweikert and Schwab. “That’s not the David or Oliver I know.”

Schweikert’s office declined to comment on the reports Thursday.

The House Ethics Committee said only that it would “extend the matter” referred to it by the OCE, which is prohibited from releasing details until after the committee finishes its investigation.

But the Washington Examiner and Phoenix New Times have reported that various Schweikert campaign committees have been paying for work done by Chartwell Associates – a firm that was run by Schwab “as a one-man operation,” according to the Examiner.

Federal Election Commission reports confirm that three Schweikert-linked committees paid a total of $181,637.09 to Chartwell since 2014, with the bulk of the spending in the 2016 election cycle. That would be well over the outside salary senior congressional staff are allowed to earn under House ethics rules.

FEC records also show that Chartwell returned $50,372.14 to Friends of David Schweikert in nine separate payments on March 31.

The OCE is a nonpartisan office that reviews and investigates allegations of wrongdoing by House members, officers and staff, and refers matters to the House Ethics Committee if it finds “substantial evidence” of an ethics violation.

The office referred the case on April 16 to the committee, which said Thursday that it would extend the matter – while being careful to note that doing so “does not in itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee.”

The committee said it would announce how it planned to proceed in Schweikert’s case on or before Nov. 14. It set no date in Schwab’s case.

The November announcement would come just days after this fall’s general election, timing that presents an “intriguing opportunity for Democrats” to gain traction in Schweikert’s solidly Republican district, in the words of one analyst.

David Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s editor for House races, said the district is becoming more moderate than it used to be, and he points to the narrower-than-expected victory by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, in the special election for the open 8th District seat this spring.

“Intriguing opportunity for Democrats. One that ordinarily wouldn’t be in play but would have potential this year,” Wasserman said.

He said Democrats would likely have tried to raise the spending issue in the campaign, even if the ethics committee did not. And Democrats Thursday were not shy about flaunting the committee’s statement.

“Rep. Schweikert, who represents the worst of the Washington swamp, is unfit to represent the people of Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, and the ongoing investigation into his serious ethical problems will undoubtedly dog him through Election Day,” Amanda Sherman, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an email.

Schweikert is currently the only Republican on the ballot in his district, with three Democrats vying for the seat. He had more than $370,123 on hand for his campaign as of March 31, the most-recent filing date for the FEC.

Noble and Jason Rose, another Republican political consultant in Arizona, said they found it difficult to believe that Schweikert would knowingly violate House rules.

“When you’re dealing with government, campaign finance, there’s a ton of rules, they change the rules and sometimes mistakes will happen,” Noble said. “You have sometimes technicalities like that, but then the media or other folks will almost burn you at the stake when, at the end of the day, there was no harmful intention involved.”

Rose called the story a case of being “guilty until proven innocent.” He noted that Schweikert has a “very significant background” in accounting and business and served as Maricopa County treasurer.

“Congressman Schweikert has acquitted himself with ethics and integrity to date, so I think rather than rush to critique him, we should show a little political patience, as difficult as that is in this day and age,” Rose said.