Investigations Politics

 U.S. Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky said Monday that a pending federal ethics complaint against him involves allegations of improper lobbying of him and his staff by his wife on behalf of the national Humane Society.

The pending complaint does not include or address ethical issues raised earlier this month in articles by WFPL’s  Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that Whitfield, his wife and another powerful lobbyist had a longstanding financial partnership in property at a West Virginia luxury resort.

Related: How a Congressman, His Wife and a Lobbyist Mixed Politics, Personal Finances

The Hopkinsville Republican acknowledged in a conference call with reporters Monday that a second ethics complaint pertaining in part to the property ownership also has been filed against him, but he said he has not received “official notification” of the complaint.

In the conference call, Whitfield denied any impropriety on his part involving controversial pending legislation supported by him and the Humane Society pertaining to the practice of “soring” show horses.

Whitfield said he has been interested in the issue for a decade and that his wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, never lobbied him on it. Harriman-Whitfield “most certainly did not convince me” to sponsor or support the bill, the congressman said. 

“Lobbying is trying to convince somebody to do something,” Whitfield said, adding that he was convinced of the legislation’s merits long before his wife became a Humane Society lobbyist in 2011 and an outspoken opponent of soring — the application of “foreign substances” to alter a horse’s gait.

Whitfield said he believes the ethics complaint was filed against him because “we’ve been so successful” in attracting large numbers of supporters for the legislation, which currently is pending in Congress. He acknowledged that the ethics complaint, at least for the time being, could stymie the bill. 

Supporters of the legislation contend that it would strengthen existing law and eliminate what they consider to be the ongoing abuse of show horses. Opponents say the bill, if enacted, would effectively decimate the performance-horse industry.

The House Committee on Ethics announced Friday that it was investigating a possible ethics violation by Whitfield, but did not state the nature of the complaint. 

Whitfield has refused to discuss his financial partnership with his wife and lobbyist Juanita Duggan. A KyCIR investigation found that Harriman-Whitfield and Duggan both advocated for clients that had legislative business before Whitfield in Congress. 

Duggan’s clients have donated generously to Whitfield’s campaigns over the years. Meanwhile, the Humane Society has also made campaign contributions to him.

Duggan previously told KyCIR that the business arrangement “was completely transparent” and “did not have any bearing whatsoever on (Whitfield’s) position as a member of Congress.”

Asked how the business arrangement could be “completely transparent” since neither she nor Whitfield publicly disclosed it, Duggan replied: “I guess that’s up for debate. Certainly nobody tried to hide it. I mean, you know, all somebody had to do was ask.”

House ethics rules do not require the disclosure of financial relationships with lobbyists.

On Monday, Whitfield would only say that he knew Duggan prior to first being elected to Congress in 1994, as well as before the purchase in 2003. Whitfield also noted that the property was sold late last year and the bank loan has been repaid.

But Whitfield refused to say during the conference call whether Duggan had ever lobbied him. And he refused to release documents that would show who paid what for the property and costs associated with its ownership.

If that becomes an issue as a result of the second ethics complaint, “then I will address it,” Whitfield said.

Asked if he thought there was anything inappropriate about the property purchase and ownership with Duggan, Whitfield replied, “Obviously I don’t, or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Congressional ethics rules generally prohibit gifts from lobbyists to members, and ethics authorities consulted by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting said the joint ownership clearly presented an appearance problem for Whitfield and might also raise legal issues if all costs associated with the property were not shared equally.

R.G. Dunlop is an investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms.