Wise (pictured above) will step down to become an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, focusing on fraud and public corruption. In an interview, he said the time was right to leave Capitol Hill because the Office of Congressional Ethics is on its feet after House members established it in 2008. Wise started in November of that year as the office’s first staff director and chief counsel.
“When I was hired, it was to set up the office and run it through its first Congress. This was always the time frame I thought I would serve for,” Wise said.
Wise could end up working on similar kinds of cases in his new job. He has been hired into the fraud and public corruption section of the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office, Vickie LeDuc, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore-based office, wrote in an e-mail. LeDuc added that Wise was hired through a competitive process that included "many other applicants" and interviews by 18 career assistant U.S. attorneys.
The Office of Congressional Ethics could be in for other changes. The office was set up at the urging of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in response to multiple ethics scandals in prior years. But Pelosi may not be speaker in January, when the House reconvenes to write rules for the next two years, and some lawmakers oppose the ethics office having the power to make its investigative reports public.
The authority to make those reports public has been a key difference between the ethics office and the more secretive House ethics committee, which is made up of members of Congress. Reports have detailed the activities of several high-profile lawmakers, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), now a candidate for Georgia governor.
Wise said that he counts increased transparency among the key successes of his tenure. Asked if he would have done anything differently, he said he would not have. “I think we did a good job, and we did the job we were given,” he said. He said his departure is not related to a potential shift in control of the House or to potential rules changes.
As The National Law Journal reported in January, Wise came to the House with a blue-chip résumé: Harvard Law, followed by the DOJ honors program and the trial teams that prosecuted former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, former Qwest Communications chief executive Joseph Nacchio and former National Century Financial Enterprises chief executive Lance Poulsen.
Wise’s tenure regularly drew praise from nonprofit groups that target the ethics of lawmakers, even as lawmakers and their defense lawyers questioned its authority and the aggressiveness of its investigations. Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Wise’s departure will be a loss.
“While both the House and Senate ethics committees routinely have turned a blind eye to the misconduct of members of Congress, under Leo’s leadership the OCE — in a manner never anticipated by many of those who voted for its creation — aggressively embraced the idea that members of the House should adhere to the code of conduct they themselves created,” Sloan said in a statement.
She added, “Given the precarious status of the OCE, it is no surprise that its excellent lawyers are seeking other employment.”
The ethics office’s bipartisan governing board, made up of ex-congressmen and others, will meet soon to name an acting head of the office, according to a news release. Porter Goss, a former Florida congressman and former CIA director who is a co-chair of the governing board, praised Wise in a statement.
“Leo assembled a highly-qualified team and led their work according to the highest professional standards,” Goss said.
Wise, a Maryland resident who went to college at Johns Hopkins University, said he previously hoped to work in a U.S. Attorney’s Office after spending at few years at Main Justice. “This is something that I long hoped to do and wanted to do,” he said.
Updated at 4:51 p.m. with LeDuc's comments.
National Law Journal photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.