Ethics of skinny dipping incident remains an open question

The shores of the Sea of Galilee. The shores of the Sea of Galilee. Flickr user emeryjl

It may be embarrassing, or even unsavory. But does a member of Congress skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee — considered by some Christians to be a holy site — also represent the type of conduct that reflects poorly on the U.S. House?

There’s a chance that question may not ever be answered — at least officially.

On Monday, Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, issued a statement that the matter of freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., taking a nude plunge last summer during a trip by about 30 House members to Israel, first reported by Politico on its website Sunday night, has already been “handled” by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., “swiftly and appropriately.”

What exactly that means — beyond a good scolding and finger-wagging — is uncertain. Cantor’s office wasn’t offering any specifics. The FBI also was described by a Cantor spokesman in the Politico story as having asked some initial questions about the matter, but a bureau spokesman on Monday wasn’t confirming that, or explaining what it may have been looking into.

Meanwhile, there was no indication on Monday that the episode of congressional skinny-dipping is, or ever will be, referred to House ethics panels by top Republican leaders for review.

For his part, Yoder has been apologizing now that the event has come to light nearly a year later. According to the Politico story, Yoder was the only one of the nearly 20 members of Congress, staff, and aides to have first taken off all of his clothes before they jumped into the water after a late dinner, in which alcohol may have been a factor.

Yoder himself could not be reached directly on Monday. But his apologies include one in The Kansas City Star, which notes he is running unopposed for reelection, in which he says he is “incredibly remorseful” and apologized for any embarrassment he has caused. He told the newspaper it was dark and that he was only in the water for about 10 seconds. Brooke, his wife, was also at the dinner, he told Politico.

Politico also noted some of the other freshman lawmakers who went swimming that night, identifying Rep.Steve Southerland, R-Fla., and his daughter; Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., and his wife; Reps. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz, Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. Politico said that many of the lawmakers who ventured into the Sea of Galilee said they did so because of the religious significance of the waters. Others said they were simply cooling off after a long day.

The American Israel Educational Foundation sponsored the trip. Cantor himself was described as being on the trip, along with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., but they were not involved in the swimming. Cantor was described as having afterward scolded the lawmakers present for losing their focus on why they were in Israel.

On Monday, Reed’s office would say only, “Congressman Reed and his wife, Jean, were there and swam together with a large group — appropriately clothed. There was no impropriety, and he is unaware of any investigation.”

There is, in fact, no official indication that either the Office of Congressional Ethics or the House Ethics Committee have been looking into the matter at any time in the past year — particularly Yoder’s swimming naked. The OCE could launch such an investigation on its own, without a complaint being filed.

Spokesmen for both the OCE and the Ethics Committee would not comment on Monday when asked if the House Code of Official Conduct might not suggest a potential violation on Yoder’s part if the matter should be looked into. One of the rules is that “a member, delegate, resident commissioner, officer, or employee of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

Several outside ethics watchdogs said on Monday they were unsure whether the activity would be a violation of that rule.

“Unsavory, sure. Embarrassing, certainly,” said one watchdog, who did not want to be named, but who offered that he does not know if Yoder’s actions rise to the level of a House ethics violation.

Pointing to the “creditably” language in the code, another watchdog who asked to not be named suggested that it could be used, if desired, to go after almost any behavior frowned upon  — including “belching.” But he said he did not believe this is a valid ethics issue, and that it “is more of a political problem” for Yoder and Republicans.

Democrats are not being shy about seizing on the news and what they depict as a lack of Republican transparency for nearly a year on the episode.

“This looks more like a scene out of Animal House than a delegation of members of Congress representing America in Israel — one of our most important security partners,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Jesse Ferguson, in a statement. “Republican leaders knew that these House Republicans’ behavior was inappropriate and wrong but kept the FBI investigation under wraps for more than a year.”

“What other inappropriate, embarrassing behavior have Republican members of Congress been engaged in that Republican leaders are keeping under wraps?” jabbed Ferguson.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reversed genders due to a computer glitch that has been resolved.

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