WASHINGTON — Freshman U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, facing an ethics review of his continued involvement with the plumbing company he has operated for 17 years, says he sought and followed the advice of House legal experts to ensure he didn’t run afoul of the rules.
And Mullin, a Republican whose district includes much of eastern Oklahoma, said the stringent rules and the scrutiny he’s under show how hard it is to serve in Congress and remain tethered to the outside world.
“If you can’t be a plumber, what can you do — other than be a career politician?” Mullin said in an interview.
The House Ethics Committee is expected to announce Monday that it will continue examining Mullin’s financial ties to Mullin Plumbing Co. and related entities.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, an outside advisory board that does not include any members of Congress, investigated Mullin’s activity — after receiving an anonymous tip — and recommended the House Ethics Committee review the allegations.
The ethics office reported:
•Mullin continued making commercials for Mullin Plumbing last year, endorsements that might have violated House rules:
•Mullin received more than $600,000 in income in 2013 from his companies; since the cap on outside earned income is $26,955, Mullin may have violated federal law and House rules;
•Mullin received compensation for serving as an officer or board member of his companies, which may have violated House rules.
Mullin, through a Washington law firm, sent a detailed response disputing each point and saying the whole matter should be handled through ongoing advisory talks — rather than an investigation — to ensure he complies with the rules about outside business activities.
The response says:
•The Office of Congressional Ethics lacks even a basic understanding of how Subchapter S corporations are owned and operated. Nearly all of the $600,000 cited by the office was not income but business expenses that flowed through Mullin, as such expenses do in Subchapter S corporations.
•Mullin met with top staff members on the House Ethics Committee soon after his election in November 2012 and received informal advice regarding the structure of his companies and broadcast advertisements in which he appeared for his company. Mullin complied with the advice.
(However, according to documents to be released by the committee, the House staff members did not tell Mullin that it would be acceptable to continue appearing in commercials after taking office; Mullin continued to make ads for his plumbing company).
•Payments made to Mullin last year were on his equity — essentially dividends — rather than earned income. And Mullin is allowed under House rules to manage or protect equity in a family trade or business without having it count as earned income.
In an interview, Mullin said he understood the need for ethics rules that prevent members of Congress from using their public positions to pad profits at a private business. He said he had taken the advice of the House ethics committee to avoid even of the appearance of that; for the first time, he said, he hired a chief executive officer to serve as a buffer between him and direct operation of the companies.
Mullin is fighting the same basic battle as Sen. Tom Coburn did — in the Senate and the House — to continue seeing patients in his medical practice. Coburn, R-Muskogee, received a narrow exemption in the House but ultimately was barred in the Senate from accepting payments from patients.
Like Coburn, Mullin also has imposed a three-term limit on his House service and campaigned on the need for members of Congress who understand how small business works.
The Federal Election Commission, in 2012, examined Mullin’s direct involvement with his company’s advertising — and a radio show on home improvement — but couldn’t agree on what was allowable for Mullin as a candidate.