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House GOP Votes To Gut Independent Congressional Ethics Board (Update: GOP Pulls Rules Change At Last Minute)

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial

Note: See update below, the House GOP decided to repeal the rules change just moments before the new Congress convened.

With the new Congress set to begin in just hours, House Republicans have voted to change House rules in a way that critics say will seriously weaken ethics oversight of Members of Congress:

WASHINGTON — House Republicans, overriding their top leaders, voted on Monday to significantly curtail the power of an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the aftermath of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail.

The move to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics was not made public until late Monday, when Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change. There was no advance notice or debate on the measure.

The surprising vote came on the eve of the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from health care to infrastructure, issues that will be the subject of intense lobbying from corporate interests. The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.

It also came on the eve of a historic shift in power in Washington, where Republicans control both houses of Congress and where a wealthy businessman with myriad potential conflicts of interest is preparing to move into the White House.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, spoke out during the meeting to oppose the measure, aides said on Monday night. The full House is scheduled to vote on Tuesday on the rules, which would last for two years, until the next congressional elections.

In place of the office, Republicans would create a new Office of Congressional Complaint Review that would report to the House Ethics Committee, which has been accused of ignoring credible allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.

“Poor way to begin draining the swamp,” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said on Twitter. He added, “Swamp wins with help of @SpeakerRyan, @RepGoodlatte.”

Mr. Goodlatte defended the action in a statement on Monday evening, saying it would strengthen ethics oversight in the House while also giving lawmakers better protections against what some of them have called overzealous efforts by the Office of Congressional Ethics.

“The O.C.E. has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work,” the statement said in part.

But Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, joined others who had worked to create the office in expressing outrage at the move and the secretive way it was orchestrated.

“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House G.O.P. has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” Ms. Pelosi said in a statement on Monday night. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics has been controversial since its creation and has faced intense criticism from many of its lawmaker targets — both Democrats and Republicans — as its investigations have consistently been more aggressive than those conducted by the House Ethics Committee.

The body was created after a string of serious ethical issues starting a decade ago, including bribery allegations against Representatives Duke Cunningham, Republican of California; William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana; and Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio. All three were ultimately convicted and served time in jail.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, which is overseen by a six-member outside board, does not have subpoena power. But it has its own staff of investigators who spend weeks conducting confidential interviews and collecting documents based on complaints they receive from the public, or news media reports, before issuing findings that detail any possible violation of federal rules or laws. The board then votes on whether to refer the matter to the full House Ethics Committee, which conducts its own review.

But the House Ethics Committee, even if it dismisses the potential ethics violation as unfounded, is required to release the Office of Congressional Ethics report detailing the alleged wrongdoing, creating a deterrent to such questionable behavior by lawmakers.

Under the new arrangement, the Office of Congressional Complaint Review could not take anonymous complaints, and all of its investigations would be overseen by the House Ethics Committee itself, which is made up of lawmakers who answer to their own party.

The Office of Congressional Complaint Review would also have special rules to “better safeguard the exercise of due process rights of both subject and witness,” Mr. Goodlatte said. The provision most likely reflects complaints by certain lawmakers that the ethics office’s staff investigations were at times too aggressive, an allegation that watchdog groups dismissed as evidence that lawmakers were just trying to protect themselves.

“O.C.E. is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug,” said a statement from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an ethics watchdog group that has filed many complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics.

(…)

Among the most prominent cases brought by the Office of Congressional Ethics since it was created was an investigation into Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who was accused of intervening with the Treasury Department to try to assist a struggling bank in which her husband owned stock.

Ms. Waters was ultimately cleared by the House Ethics Committee, but the committee criticized the actions of her grandson, who was then her chief of staff, and urged the House to consider broadening a ban on lawmakers’ hiring their relatives to include grandchildren.

By moving all of the authority to the House Ethics Committee, several ethics lawyers said, the House risks becoming far too protective of members accused of wrongdoing.

Ms. Waters was ultimately cleared by the House Ethics Committee, but the committee criticized the actions of her grandson, who was then her chief of staff, and urged the House to consider broadening a ban on lawmakers’ hiring their relatives to include grandchildren.

By moving all of the authority to the House Ethics Committee, several ethics lawyers said, the House risks becoming far too protective of members accused of wrongdoing.

Sarah Mimms at Buzzfeed has read through the proposed rule change and summarizes what it means:

  1. The OCE should no longer be independent. Instead, it will be under the House’s Committee on Ethics, which is run by members of Congress.
  2. The office will no longer be able to accept anonymous tips from whistleblowers.
  3. The ethics office must stop any investigation if the House ethics committee tells it to.
  4. The ethics office cannot investigate any tips on misconduct that took place before Jan. 3, 2011.
  5. The office can no longer talk about its findings — or even hire a spokesperson.
  6. The OCE cannot investigate any criminal cases or turn allegations of corruption over to law enforcement.

Each of these changes is problematic on their own because of the extent to which they tend to make it less likely that voters will be sufficiently informed of instances in which Members of Congress have engaged in activity that calls their ability to represent their constituents into question. The fact that the OCE will no longer be independent, for example, means that there will no longer be an independent agency with the ability to initiate investigations of Members of Congress that also provides members of the public and potential whistleblowers with a forum to which they can talk about potential ethical violations involving Members of Congress. Not being able to accept anonymous tips essentially guts the whistleblower protections that had been put in place to protect Congressional aides and others who may have information about wrongdoing by Members but don’t want their identities publicly revealed for fear of retribution. This will likely make it less likely that wrongdoing will come to light, or that it will be punished. The fact that the ethics office cannot continue an investigation if the Congressional Ethics Committee tells it to stop means that the office is more likely to become a tool for partisan retribution against rivals and attacks against enemies, especially given the fact that ethics investigations can often be expensive for Members if it means they have to acquire outside counsel to defend them. Additionally, while it isn’t necessarily unreasonable to place a time limit similar to statute of limitations on an investigation, barring investigations regarding allegations that are more than a mere five years old seems to me to be excessive, especially if one is speaking of a continuing pattern of misconduct, which has been common among many Members of Congres who end up under ethics investigation. Similarly, the fact that the office can no longer talk about its findings or even hire a spokesperson means that the public will be deprived of information it is arguably entitled to regarding improper conduct by Members. The bar on investigating anything that is being investigated by law enforcement is improper largely because it is often the case that conduct which is not criminal in nature still violates Congressional issues and ought to be handled by the appropriate office as soon as possible rather than forcing investigators to wait until any pending criminal investigation is over. Finally, the fact that the office can’t turn evidence that could give rise to criminal charges makes no sense at all. Anyone who has evidence that someone has committed a crime should be able to report it to the appropriate law enforcement agency, and this especially applies to the office charged with investigating Members of Congress for wrongdoing. In some cases, people who have evidence of criminal activity and fail to turn it over to law enforcement could potentially be charged as an accessory to the crime, by passing this rules change the House GOP Caucus is essentially ordering those who come upon evidence of criminal conduct by Members of Congress to suppress it, and that’s unconscionable.

Not surprisingly, this move by the House GOP is coming under sharp criticism, from both House GOP critics and supporters alike. House Democrats, for example, are calling the rules change “dishonest” and “frightening.” Kevin Drum notes that this is happening at the same time that we are just weeks aware from the swearing in of a new Republican President with ethics problems of his own, and seems to confirm that the Republicans in Congress will be unlikely hold Trump accountable for his own actions. On the right, there is similar criticism. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, for example, notes that a move like this calls into question the entire “drain the swamp” mantra that Republicans ran on in 2016 at both the Presidential and Congressional levels. Jazz Shaw at Hot Air, meanwhile, calls on the GOP Caucus to reconsider this move. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone outside Congress willing to the defend the move, although the Trump transition team certainly is trying. Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who will play a key role in the new White House, defended the action today in an appearance on Morning Joe, while Donald Trump himself seems to only be questioning the timing:

As Jazz notes in his post that I linked above, the actual vote in the House GOP Caucus on this rule change was 119-74, which would ordinarily be enough to defeat the change when it comes to the House Floor if one assumes, as expected, that the majority of House Democrats would oppose the move. Unfortunately, the change we’re talking about here is not likely to be voted on individually. Instead it will be voted on as part of the complete package of House Rules that are routinely approved at the start of each new session of Congress. It’s not likely that Republicans will unite to vote down the entire Rules package simply because of one rule, so the fact that the change could theoretically be defeated means very little. Absent a move at the last minute by House Leadership to pull this change from that package, this rule change will be approved and Congress will move forward with even fewer protections against unethical conduct than it had before.

Update: Shortly before the new House convened at Noon today, House Republicans pulled the rules change:

Following a public outcry, and criticism from President-elect Donald Trump, House Republicans reversed course Tuesday on drastic changes to the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered a motion to restore the current OCE rules, and that was accepted by the GOP conference.

It was supposed to be a jubilant day for the right — a day Republicans ushered in a new GOP-controlled Congress as they await the takeover of the White House by their party leader, Donald Trump.

Then came a self-inflicted public relations debacle that even Trump publicly questioned — and the whole day unraveled from there.

(…)

The pressure and public outcry led House GOP leadership to call an emergency conference on Tuesday to consider their options and perhaps weigh changing course.

Previously an independent body, the new set-up would essentially declaw the office. It would bar OCE from considering anonymous tips against lawmakers and sharing investigative findings with other branches of government or the public, as the office currently does in the name of transparency. It would also apparently keep OCE from investigating criminal activity, the bulk of their work — instructing the office to “immediately” refer any hint of such actions to the lawmaker-controlled ethics panel rather than pursue themselves.

It’s an awkward way for Republicans to start the new Congress — and not merely because it gives the appearance that they don’t value oversight of their own actions. It also steps on their message of the week, which is one of unity and “hitting the ground running” in a new GOP-controlled Washington.

This avoids a debate that would have been embarrassing to the say that least on the first day of the new Congress.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Rafer Janders says:

    Look, as long as they’re not using a private email server I’ve got no cause for complaint.

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  2. James in Bremerton says:

    The GOP overreach is not subtle this time around. It will get much worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. SKI says:

    As a Compliance Officer, the refusal to allow anonymous whistle-blowing is beyond absurd. It is directly contrary to Federal laws and regulations governing what companies are suppose to do. It is per se unreasonable and would be evidence to increase sentencing lengths and severity per the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    Huh. So we’re draining the swamp right into the offices of Congress. That’s convenient, I guess.

    Also, I … agreed with … Trump … on something. Phoning my therapist now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Actions speak louder than words.
    Based on their actions the Republicans highest priority is eliminating the possibility of ethics violations.
    And then Ryan lied about it…

    I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress

    The rules changes make it crystal clear the Office won’t operate independently.
    Indefensible.
    Republicans are corrupt scum. And the most corrupt scum is Trump…their leader.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Gustopher says:

    If you have to split something into multiple tweets, you haven’t put enough thought and effort into it — either you are using the wrong medium, or you need to be more concise. It bothers me that President-Elect Trump is even bad at tweeting.

    How hard is it to boil it down to: “House weakens Ethics board as first act. Should focus on jobs, taxes, healthcare first. Sad. #DTS”

    I was able to slip in jobs and sad, strengthening the message, and still keep it to one tweet with space to spare — maybe a thumbs down emoji? The president-elect needs to hire someone to edit his tweets for brevity. I would apply for the job, if the hours didn’t suck so much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. cian says:

    Nothing I’ve seen or heard over the last eight years suggests the American people will be in any way disturbed by this. Once you’ve embraced Trump, anything goes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Ryan is a liar. He could easily have stopped this he just didn’t want his fingerprints on it.

    But you have to love that the most precociously corrupt administration in recent history is calling them out. This is an important matter of separation of powers: there’s only one Thief In Chief. The godfather can’t have a bunch of capos running their own operations and not even letting him wet his beak.

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:

    I think he’s got someone editing his tweets now. He sometimes uses multisyllable words and doesn’t even misspell them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. David K. says:

    There is no intellectually honest defense of the Republican Party at this point. Openly corrupt. Openly aligned with White Supremacists. Openly supporting a President who prioritizes his own and Russia’s interests ahead of Americas. How anyone can support them is absurd.

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  11. JKB says:

    And now you see why Trump won rather than some DC denizen, Republican or Democrat. Trump may have “issues” but he wasn’t corrupt Hillary, nor was he a DC Republican (even if sojourning as a provincial governor).

    But those here should be happy. This is a sign that Democrats may have opportunities to exploit for 2018.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. C. Clavin says:

    Breaking: Republicans walked back their effort at eliminating ethics in the face of public outcry.
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2017/01/03/republicans-pull-ethics-gutting.html?via=desktop&source=copyurl

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  13. SKI says:

    @JKB:

    And now you see why Trump won rather than some DC denizen, Republican or Democrat. Trump may have “issues” but he wasn’t corrupt Hillary, nor was he a DC Republican (even if sojourning as a provincial governor).

    Slow down there… Trump’s compliance/ethical issues are far worse than you are acknowledging. He is flat out ignoring the Executive Branch’s Office of Ethics guidance and advice, he is insanely conflicted with his immediate family literally selling access and his objection to the GOP gutting the Congressional Ethics Office was related to optics and timing, not the actual act.

    ____

    BTW, the GOP apparently have some sense of shame or are finally listening to their political strategists as they just supposedly backed down: https://twitter.com/SarahMMimms/status/816332802107052032

    The House GOP just killed the ethics amendment in a closed-door hearing.

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  14. Just minutes before the new Congress convened, the House GOP decided to pull the rules change. I’ve updated the post to reflect this fact.

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  15. Nikki says:

    The vote took place last night.

    Trump’s first reaction to the public outcry was to tweet out nonsense to distract from the brouhaha.

    When it became obvious that support was a negative, Trump sent out his tepid tweets bemoaning the TIMING of the gutting of the OCE.

    Trump’s supporters will still call this winning.

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  16. SenyorDave says:

    @JKB: Trump may have “issues” but he wasn’t corrupt Hillary, nor was he a DC Republican (even if sojourning as a provincial governor).

    Personally, I think he won because of Comey. HRC’s support among independents all but collapsed late, coinciding with the release of the letter.

    As far as Trump’s “issues”, which do you refer to? The sexual assault issues, the racism issues, the stealing from his charity issues, the scamming issues, the child sex issues (sure its normal for a 60 year old to walk around in an area when he knows that 15 year old girls will be getting changed)? Please be specific, when you are dealing with an amoral pig we need precision.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @JKB:

    Trump may have “issues” but he wasn’t corrupt Hillary

    Trump is far more corrupt than even your Hillary wet-dreams.
    He already has pay-for-play scandals out of his whatever.
    The failure of Congress to provide constitutional oversight doesn’t mean that blatant corruption doesn’t exist.
    Take of your blinders, fool.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. wr says:

    @JKB: “Trump may have “issues” but he wasn’t corrupt Hillary, nor was he a DC Republican (even if sojourning as a provincial governor).”

    And to those still asking the musical question “how stupid do you have to be to be a Trump voter,” JKB kindly provides the answer once again.

    For God’s sake, Trump doesn’t have to close down an ethics office because he’s already declared that no ethics rules apply to him.

    But here’s ol’ braintrust JKB — “See? Trump’s not corrupt. I know that because his hat says Make America Great Again.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. C. Clavin says:

    So let’s review, shall we?
    Republicans first act of governance was to eliminate ethics.
    Ryan promptly defended the indefensible.
    In the face of public outcry Republicans then chickened out and decided to be more subtle about their corruption.
    Meantime JKB opines that serial sexual assault, self-dealing (using charity money to benefit himself), and openly selling access to the President are not actually corrupt acts.
    2017 is shaping up to be very entertaining. Shame that it will come at the cost of our Republic.

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  20. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Hal_10000: Drain, dike–their both water control devices, what difference does it make?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. gVOR08 says:

    One of the congressional Rs first moves is an attempt to gut congressional ethics enforcement. Hoocoodanode.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. michael reynolds says:

    Trump’s tweets are not about public backlash, and certainly not about ethics. Psychopaths cannot tolerate powers they cannot control. By kneecapping the House Trump has ‘explained’ Ryan’s new role as impotent lapdog. From here on in Ryan will be careful to check with Trump on everything he does.

    Silly little Paul Ryan. He thought he was Speaker of the House. And he’s just another Chris Christie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. al-Alameda says:

    Actually, this move makes sense: In Mitch McConnell’s and Paul Ryan’s legislative world ethics do not exist. Am I wrong? Am I missing something?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Gustopher says:

    Why wasn’t the new congresses first act to repeal ObamaCare? Imagine how happy the base would be when Obama vetoes it — they could chortle for a few weeks about the impending doom for the Job Killing ACA.

    At the very least, I expect them to time things so Obama’s last act is to veto, and then send it right back to Trump.

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  25. MarkedMan says:

    They have another way to gut the office. Norm Ornstein, who was involved in the creation of the committee, just said that both Democrats and Republicans (Pelosi and Boehner) appointed serious, non-partisan members. When Ryan has his chance he will just put in hacks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan: As John Cole said,

    Democrats fix shit. Republicans burn shit down.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. HelloWorld! says:

    Isn’t Paul Ryan the one who was caught drinking a $600 bottle of wine paid for by one of his favorite lobbyists? Aaahh…yes, it was! How quickly the American people forget…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. bandit says:

    @michael reynolds: Why don’t you tell us all about psychosis or whatever you’re being treated for?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Neil Hudelson says:

    @bandit:

    You know, with the written word one can take as much time as one needs to craft something clever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Lit3Bolt says:

    @bandit:

    You’ll have to forgive Michael, he sometimes calls a spade a spade, instead of Freedom! Spades or Radical Islamic! Spades.

    Go back to your safe space in Fox News.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. C. Clavin says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    Go back to your safe space in Fox News sniffing the lead dogs butt.

    FTFY

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Mr. Bluster says:

    GOP Pulls Rules Change At Last Minute
    One year ago today domestic terrorists led by Anal Cavity took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge leading to the infamous “Bag of dicks video.”
    Today we see the opening of President Pud’s Congress revealing themselves to be the skunks and weasels I figured that they would be.
    What can we send them as a symbol of our disdain?
    https://www.rt.com/usa/328791-oregon-dildos-bundy-ritzheimer/
    http://wordpress-80960-242333.cloudwaysapps.com/militia-takes-over-federal-wildlife-refuge/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @gVOR08:

    It’s not the first time. Back around 2000, when they gained unilateral control, they tried to gut ethics oversight, only to backpedal in the face of what should have been utterly predictable public outcry.

    So it’s basically a case of they’re not only corrupt (and trying to escape oversight), they’re also too stupid to learn from their own past mistakes (so they keep repeating them).

    Which means that we should absolutely expect a deficit exploding tax cut sometime soon. I’m already mentally spending it. I’m sure Reynolds probably is as well.

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  34. Terrye Cravens says:

    Trump threw them under the bus! Who knows? He might do the same thing if they repeal Obamacare without a replacement. He wants to be loved. Fat chance that is going to happen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. Mr. Bluster says:

    He wants to be loved. Fat chance that is going to happen.

    What’s love got to do with it?

    And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
    …Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/10/07/donald_trump_2005_tape_i_grab_women_by_the_pussy.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. michael reynolds says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Ya, know, I was thinking that I could stimulate the hell out of the economy if only Trump made my tax cuts retroactive. I could totally trickle then.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Guarneri says:

    I see the hysteria continues unabated. In some twisted, neurotic spasm does it make you guys feel better about yourselves to come here all day everyday and sling crazed invective ?

    It’s not normal behavior; not characteristic of well adjusted people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. EddieInCA says:

    @Guarneri:

    “Argo _____ Yourself”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Guarneri: And you would be an expert on well-adjusted people because… ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0