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Trump's likely Interior pick from Spokane still under ethics probe

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane at Trump Tower on Monday

President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name two people from eastern Washington to his cabinet.

The two would be odd ducks in the Trump leadership team — and not just because of where they're from.

Trump wants retired Marine Gen. James Mattis of Richland to be his secretary of defense.

For Mattis to join the cabinet, Congress would have to change a longstanding law aimed at preserving civilian control of government. Mattis retired from the Marine Corps three years ago, while the law requires at least a seven-year wait between wearing a military uniform and running the Pentagon. 

Unnamed sources told various media outlets on Friday that Trump wants Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to be secretary of the interior.

The Spokane Republican met with Trump Monday. "We spoke about a lot of things," she said to a C-SPAN reporter after stepping out of the golden elevators at Trump Tower. "It's always an honor to spend time with the president-elect, and I walk away just reminded that he's a man of action, and I'm very enthusiastic about the leadership he is bringing."

So far, Trump has selected three billionaires for his leadership team. Six of his cabinet-level nominees donated a total of $11.6 million to his campaign and the Republican Party this year, according to the Washington Post.

Neither Mattis nor McMorris Rodgers is a big donor.

McMorris Rodgers is the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress.

She's also the subject of an unfinished congressional ethics probe.

In 2013, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics found "substantial reason to believe" McMorris Rodgers had used congressional staff and resources in her 2012 reelection campaign. While staffers are allowed to campaign on their personal time, any use of taxpayer-funded labor or government resources is illegal.

[asset-images[{"caption": "One of the Office of Congressional Ethics' findings", "fid": "132173", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201612/OCE-CMRfinding31.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]The findings pointed to congressional staff and a consultant using McMorris Rodgers' office in the Rayburn House Office Building to prepare her for an election debate. She debated Democratic challenger Rich Cowan in Spokane a week later.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Emails between a McMorris Rodgers staffer and a consultant on campaign work to be done in her congressional office.", "fid": "132174", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201612/DebatePrepEmail.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Office of Congressional Ethics"}]]

The Office of Congressional Ethics lacks the authority to issue charges or sanctions; the watchdog agency recommended the House Ethics Committee pursue its findings further. In March 2014, the ethics committee opted to keep looking into the McMorris Rodgers case confidentially but not, at least for the time being, to convene a special subcommittee for a more formal investigation.

Since then, the ethics committee has neither closed its inquiry nor announced any findings. The committee did disclose in its January 2015 end-of-session report that it had not completed its investigation.

Attorney Tom Rust, the ethics committee's staff director, declined to comment for this story.

McMorris Rodgers' lawyer Elliot Berke denied most of the allegations in 2013 and blamed them on a disgruntled employee. Berke told the ethics office that McMorris Rodgers did hold one debate-prep session in her congressional office and that she regretted doing that.

McMorris Rodgers' spokesperson Molly Drenkard declined to be interviewed.

In an emailed statement, Drenkard said, "The Congresswoman has fully cooperated with the Ethics Committee and is confident she has complied with all laws, rules and standards of conduct.”

In its 2013 report, the Office of Congressional Ethics said that McMorris Rodgers' staffer Patrick Bell refused to participate in the investigation and that her debate-coaching consultant Brett O'Donnell — known in political circles as the Tea Party Whisperer — refused to certify that the information he provided was complete and accurate.

The report recommended subpoenaing the two men.

In 2015, O'Donnell pleaded guilty to lying to the House ethics investigators in another case, this one about his campaign work for former Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia).

If McMorris Rodgers does leave Congress for the Interior Department, the House Ethics Committee would lose its jurisdiction over her and drop any ongoing investigations, as it does when anyone it is investigating resigns or is voted out of office.

Year started with KUOW: 2009