/Arizona Republican Rep. David Schweikert admits 11 ethics violations, will pay $50K fine

Arizona Republican Rep. David Schweikert admits 11 ethics violations, will pay $50K fine

Arizona Republican Rep. David Schweikert reached a deal announced Thursday to end a longstanding House Ethics Committee investigation by admitting to 11 rules violations, accepting a reprimand, and agreeing to pay a $50,000 fine.

The committee found “substantial evidence” of violations by the five-term congressman stretching from 2010 into 2018. Those violations include undisclosed loans and campaign contributions; misuse of campaign funds for personal purposes; improper spending by his office; and an environment where office staffers were pressured to do political work.

The deal caps an investigation that has cast a shadow over Schweikert’s political career since late 2017, when allegations of misspending first surfaced.

In a statement, Grace White, a spokeswoman for Schweikert, said he wanted to move ahead and didn’t address the substantive issues in the probe.

“We are pleased the Committee has issued their report and we can move forward from this chapter. As noted in the review, all issues have been resolved and Congressman Schweikert will continue working hard for Arizona’s 6th District,” she said.

In his response to the Ethics Committee, Schweikert acknowledged there were problems.

“I bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring that my congressional office and my campaign adhere to both the letter and spirit of the wide array of laws, rules, and regulations that govern our important work,” he told the committee.

But Schweikert stalled in cooperating with the committee’s probe and was untruthful at times, the panel noted.

Rep. David Schweikert speaks during an Arizona Republican Party meeting at Church for the Nations in Phoenix on Jan. 25, 2020.

“Schweikert’s testimony lacked candor at times. In taking issue with the (committee’s) questioning strategy, Representative Schweikert attempts to shift his responsibility to provide truthful and candid testimony,” according to the report that accompanied Schweikert’s deal with the committee.

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For nearly two years, Schweikert maintained the matter under investigation was little more than a bookkeeping dispute.

After the separate Office of Congressional Ethics, which helps screen potential cases for the Ethics Committee, revealed its investigative findings against Schweikert’s longtime former chief of staff, Oliver Schwab, in June 2019, Schweikert political adviser Chris Baker shifted tone. He acknowledged serious problems had existed and said Schweikert’s trust in Schwab “was grossly misplaced.”

The committee’s new report comes as Schweikert has struggled to mount a financially viable reelection campaign while Democrats have four candidates vying to challenge him in November.

One of them, Hiral Tipirneni, has $1 million more than Schweikert’s cash-strapped campaign.

Entering July, only one House incumbent, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, had a larger cash deficit than Schweikert would if Tipirneni wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Report undercuts image

The report deals another blow to Schweikert, whose Scottsdale-based congressional district is historically safe ground for the GOP. But the Republican-leaning district is the kind of suburban, relatively well-educated location that has drifted toward Democrats, especially in the Trump era.

Schweikert has struggled to raise money throughout the current campaign.

For Schweikert, a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, the allegations of misspending hit directly at the heart of his political persona as a budget and finance expert.

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Ethics case snowballed

The Schweikert probe began with the Office of Congressional Ethics, which investigates potential cases and refers them to the Ethics Committee. That investigation amassed a troubling paper trail involving Schwab that implicated Schweikert, too. 

Unlike OCE, the Ethics Committee has subpoena power and was able to burrow in even deeper.

In August 2018, OCE’s board found it had “substantial reason” to believe Schweikert may have received improper gifts, omitted key details from his required personal and campaign financial disclosures and paid staff out of line for the work they actually did.

In June 2019, after OCE publicly released the evidence it gathered against Schwab, Schweikert’s campaign acknowledged there were problems and that his trust in Schwab was “grossly misplaced.”

By then, the Ethics Committee had extended its investigation against him, and Democrats had promised a tougher battle for his seat. Campaign finance reports throughout the current cycle have underscored that.

In three of the four quarters during the past year, Schweikert’s campaign spent more than it took in, a telltale sign of distress.

Losing, winning, surviving

Schweikert’s up-and-down congressional history includes debt-larded losses in 1994 and 2008 before he toppled former U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., in the tea party-fueled wave election of 2010. 

Schweikert could not rest on his laurels with that victory because the state’s political lines were redrawn beginning with the 2012 elections.

To remain in office under the redrawn district lines, Schweikert had to defeat fellow GOP freshman U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, in a 2012 primary. 

He won, but the victory came at a high price.

Campaign mailers raised questions of Quayle’s sexuality and a story in Politico citing unnamed sources said Quayle was among dozens of members of Congress who frolicked in the Sea of Galilee during a 2011 trip to Israel.  

Schweikert maintained he had not impugned Quayle the way many interpreted it, but to many Republicans, he had crossed a line. 

At the same time, Schweikert had also weakened the political hand of then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, by voting against certain budget measures, among other acts of rebellion. After the 2012 elections, GOP leaders booted Schweikert and three other House Republicans from their committees.

Schweikert, who lost a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, said at the time that the purge targeted “the more outspoken conservatives” and “there is retribution for voting your conscience now.”

Whatever the reason, Schweikert was back on that committee after the 2014 elections and promoted to the Ways and Means Committee after the 2016 elections. 

By then, Schweikert was a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of activist conservatives who helped drive Boehner into retirement in 2015. Even so, Schweikert rarely bucked his party’s leaders and was seen as a bridge to the party’s often-unruly right flank.

A tougher road ahead

At the beginning of the Trump administration, Schweikert reliably stuck with his party’s two signature legislative efforts: the failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the successful passage of sweeping tax cuts that largely benefited corporations. 

Even with the cloud of the ethics investigation newly underway, Schweikert won a fifth term in 2018 by defeating Democrat Anita Malik by 10 percentage points. In three prior runs in the same district, Schweikert won by an average of 27 points.

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.