Washington Examiner: House Democrat smacked with ethics complaint over conflict of interest

By Alana Goodman

A government watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint calling for a federal investigation into Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, claiming that he violated conflict of interest rules by sponsoring bills that would benefit a law firm in which he has a multimillion-dollar financial interest.

The complaint, filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics, alleges that Cartwright’s actions represent “a clear conflict of interest” that “undermines public confidence.” It asks the office to conduct an immediate investigation. The document was filed by the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a government watchdog group.

Cartwright’s potential financial conflict involving truck insurance legislation was first reported by the Washington Examiner this month. The Pennsylvania Democrat recently introduced two bills that would increase the mandatory minimum liability insurance for commercial truck drivers from $750,000 to $4.5 million.

The legislation stands to benefit the Cartwright’s family’s Pennsylvania-based law firm, Munley Law, which specializes in commercial truck accident lawsuits, because it would allow higher payouts, a share of which go to litigants’ attorneys. Cartwright and his wife both have profit-sharing agreements with the firm that are valued between $2 million and $10 million, according to the congressman’s 2018 financial disclosure report.

Cartwright’s wife, Marion Munley, works as an attorney for the firm and is viewed as an industry expert in truck-related litigation. The Munley Law website currently advertises a “record-breaking $26 million settlement” that Munley obtained in a “landmark truck accident case” in 2018. Munley also served as the chairwoman of the Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice, a trial attorney trade group that has been lobbying for Cartwright’s bill, according to lobbying disclosure records. Last year, the lobbying group praised Munley as a “titan of trucking litigation” who has helped “shape new laws.”

According to the Office of Congressional Ethics, a conflict of interest ”denotes a situation in which an official‘s conduct of his office conflicts with his private economic affairs.” Ethics rules prohibit members of Congress from using their positions for personal benefit.

“In this case, Representative Cartwright has a clear conflict of interest. This is not a case where Cartwright simply voted on legislation, but is a case where he used his official position to sponsor legislation,” wrote FACT’s Executive Director Kendra Arnold in the complaint to Office of Congressional Ethics Chief Counsel Omar Ashmawy.

“Not only does Cartwright have a financial interest that would be directly affected by his sponsored legislation, but it is a unique and specific interest in a law firm specializing in the type of litigation that would be impacted,” wrote Arnold. “Cartwright’s financial interest alone is sufficient to prohibit his official action, but his interest combined with his wife’s employment, similar significant financial interest in the law firm specializing in this subject area, and involvement with an organization lobbying for the legislation undermines public confidence.”

The complaint asked the committee “to immediately investigate Representative Cartwright and impose any required penalties.”

The American Association for Justice and other supporters of Cartwright’s legislation argue that current insurance minimums for commercial trucks are too low to compensate accident victims and have not been increased since the 1980s.

“Trucking companies carry inadequate 1980s level of insurance, which means thousands of crash victims are left without the financial resources to pay medical bills or restore the quality of life that they enjoyed before the crash,” said AAJ CEO Linda Lipsen.

But trucking industry advocates claim the current insurance minimum adequately covers over 99% of truck-related accidents and argue that the increased premiums would drive small shipping companies and independent truck drivers out of business.

“From our perspective, it’s blatantly obvious the motives behind the legislation are to economically improve the bottom line for attorneys that specialize in suing truckers,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Should there be any integrity in our system at all, [Cartwright] should be recusing himself from involvement.”

Cartwright did not respond to a request for comment.

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