Ethics panel rebukes Kentucky lawmaker on animal rights bill

By Matthew Daly, Associated Press | Posted - Jul. 14, 2016 at 8:10 p.m.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Veteran Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky violated House rules by allowing his wife to lobby staff members on a bill he sponsored that was related to her work, the House Ethics Committee said Thursday in a report. The ethics panel rebuked Whitfield for his actions but said they were unintentional.

Whitfield, a Republican, is retiring this year after 11 terms.

The ethics panel said he "failed to prohibit lobbying contacts" between his staff and his wife, Constance, a Humane Society lobbyist. Constance Whitfield frequently contacted her husband's staff about his bill to ban a practice that manipulates walking horses to produce an exaggerated, high-stepping gait. The practice, known as "soring," is considered abusive by some animal welfare groups.

Whitfield said in a statement that he has advanced "scores of bills to protect animals against cruelty" during his 22 years in Congress.

"Championing the welfare of animals has been a passion that my wife and I have shared throughout our 25 years of marriage," he said. "My commitment to animal protection is the reason I became the target of an ethics complaint."

Whitfield said he did not realize that contacts between his wife and his staff that had been permissible for years were no longer allowed after she registered as a lobbyist in 2011.

Whitfield called that "an inadvertent oversight" with no ill motives.

"I accept the committee's reproval for my unintentional failure to re-shape relations between my wife and my staff in late 2011," he said. "I made a mistake. In the heat of a ferocious legislative battle (over the walking-horse bill) and in the midst of pursuing a righteous cause against ruthless opponents, I failed to step back and familiarize myself with the applicable rules" about lobbying contacts between a lawmaker's staff and spouse.

"I should have done so, and I regret that I did not," Whitfield said.

Whitfield's bill did not come up for a vote in the last Congress, despite support from a range of animal and veterinary groups and more than 300 co-sponsors in the House. Whitfield blamed that outcome on the ethics inquiry, which he said was initiated by groups including the Tennessee-based Performance Show Horse Association and the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

A report by an Ethics subcommittee said that while it was clear Whitfield and his wife shared similar views on animal welfare, Whitfield's failure to restrict his staff's contact with his wife "raised inferences of impropriety and suggested a special privilege" for Constance Whitfield and her employer.

"The public might well wonder, upon reading the facts of this case, whether congressional spouses who are also lobbyists offer an 'inside track' to any client who can hire them," the report said.

The Humane Society of the United States issued a statement Thursday night saying: "We're pleased to see that the committee recognized that any prohibited lobbying contacts between Congressman Whitfield and his wife were unintentional and not improperly benefiting any party. ... Ed's work was entirely motivated by his long-standing and deeply felt passion for stopping animal cruelty."

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