Money and Democracy

Published — August 12, 2016

Congressman-car dealer refuses to cooperate with investigators

House Ethics Committee to extend investigation into alleged conflict of interest


U.S. Rep. Roger Williams’ financial interest in his auto dealership may have “influenced his performance of official duties,” and the House Ethics Committee will extend its investigation into the Texas congressman’s conduct.

The determination was made by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which advises the House Ethics Committee, in a report issued Thursday. Investigators noted the Republican congressman did not cooperate with the probe and recommended the House Ethics Committee issue subpoenas to Williams and his dealership to obtain information on its rental practices.

It was a serious setback for the representative, who in a 12-page statement says he has done nothing improper.

The Center for Public Integrity was first to report accusations against the congressman in a report last November. The story drew a request for a review by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C. legal watchdog.

Williams offered an amendment to a transportation bill that safety advocates say would have benefited his business. Prior to passage of the legislation, it was legal for businesses to rent vehicles that were the subject to safety recalls. The law stopped the practice, but Williams’ amendment, which failed, would have exempted car dealerships that issue loaners and rent cars to customers.

In his response, Williams stated that his dealership “makes no profit from facilitating rental vehicles or in offering loaner vehicles for its customers” and that he offered the amendment “without any improper motivations, and without any desire or possible effect of personal gain.”

The House Code of Conduct generally prohibits a member from taking an official action that may benefit his or her financial interest. Officially, a member cannot receive compensation where “the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from the position of such individual in Congress.”

From here, the House Ethics Committee may convene an investigative subcommittee.

The rental car provision in the legislation, which was also in the Senate version, was spurred by the deaths of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, ages 24 and 20. The two sisters were killed in 2004 while driving a rented, recalled vehicle that caught fire and crashed head-on into a semi, according to consumer groups that have backed the rental car proposal.

Williams’ amendment would have made the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision existed in the Senate bill.

Williams is chairman of Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM SRT in Weatherford. In his remarks on the House floor, Williams said the bill was bad for small businesses.

Though Williams’ amendment did not make it into law, a House-Senate conference committee decided that rather than exempting auto dealers from the requirement, it would exempt rental fleets with 35 or fewer cars. That provision was included in the larger transportation bill and signed into law in December.

Punishment for violating House rules can include a formal reprimand, censure or even expulsion. Each action would require a vote of the full House.

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