The value of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Tom Petri's shares in Oshkosh increased by 30 percent as he sought to help the company retain a $3 billion military contract and escape Pentagon cuts. (Gary C. Klein/Sheboygan Press Media)
WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Petri says he is "distressed by the innuendo" that there is a conflict between his personal financial interests and his official actions in Washington so he took the unusual step on Sunday of asking the House Ethics Committee to investigate him.
"To end any questions, I am requesting that the committee formally review the matter and report back," the Wisconsin Republican wrote in a letter to the committee that his office released Monday.
His move follows a Gannett Washington Bureau investigation of his advocacy at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill for Oshkosh Corp., a defense contractor in his district, while he owned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in the company. His stock increased in value by 30 percent while he championed Oshkosh's interests.
That report prompted non-partisan watchdog group Public Citizen last week to urge the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to review the case, saying Petri had an "obvious conflict of interest."
A spokesman for Petri, who has repeatedly declined to be interviewed on the subject, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday. In a statement Monday, the congressman took issue with the Gannett report.
"Articles (enclosed) recently questioned my ownership of stock in companies and my actions on their behalf," Petri said in the letter. "It is my honor and duty to advocate on behalf of those who live and work in my area; I am distressed by the innuendo in these articles."
Petri's letter was not directed at the independent OCE but rather to colleagues on the House Ethics Committee, Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.
House ethics rules prohibit members from using their official position for personal gain, but the rules are murky and are interpreted on a case-by-case basis by the House Ethics Committee, which is responsible for enforcing them.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics typically conducts preliminary reviews and, if warranted, refers cases to the committee for further action.
Neither the Office of Congressional Ethics nor the House Committee on Ethics could be reached for comment Monday because they were closed for Presidents Day.
Ethics watchdogs have said Petri's situation deserves scrutiny because he contacted executive branch agencies — in this case the Defense secretary and secretary of the Army — in 2009 in an attempt to preserve and expedite the awarding of a $3 billion truck-manufacturing contract to Oshkosh.
In addition, he wrote colleagues in Congress asking them to reject $101 million worth of cuts the Pentagon wanted to make to its budget for the trucks in 2013. His House colleagues blocked $80 million worth of cuts.
At the same time, Petri's investments of $265,000 to $650,000 in Oshkosh stock grew in value to $340,000 to $863,000, a gain of 28 percent to 33 percent, a Gannett Washington Bureau analysis found.
Petri said in his letter than he disclosed his investments as required in annual financial disclosure reports and that he sought guidance from the Ethics Committee "from time to time" regarding his advocacy for the company. He said he did not act on inside information.
"My actions as a stockholder are no different than any other stockholder based solely on public information," he wrote.
Donovan Slack writes for the Gannett Washington Bureau.