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Ethics Watchdog Group Calls For Lankford's Recusal From Insurrection Investigation

Moments after the Senate abruptly recessed during remarks by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) explaining his vote to object to the results of the presidential election, an aide tells him that "protestors" have breached the Capitol on Jan. 6.

An ethics watchdog group is calling on Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), vice chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, to recuse from any investigation into fellow senators for their roles in the Jan. 6th insurrection.

"Given Senator Lankford’s involvement in events that led to the insurrection and connection to other senators who may face such investigations, his recusal is required by Senate rules," Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics In Washington (CREW) executive director Noah Bookbinder wrote in a Jan. 21 letter. "Even if his recusal were not required, discretionary recusal is warranted to avoid any appearance of impropriety that could undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the Ethics Committee’s investigations."

The CREW letter was released later on the same day that seven Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, submitted a letter requesting a formal investigation into Cruz and Hawley by the ethics committee. 

Reached by phone Wednesday, Bookbinder said Lankford's decision to withdraw his objection to certifying President Joe Biden's Electoral College win after the deadly pro-Trump attack on the Capitol does not negate the fact that he had previously signed on to an effort to object to certification of Biden's rightful win led by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), nor that he participated in deligitimizing the election results in concert with then-President Donald Trump's baseless claims of election fraud and a "stolen election."

"Because of that, our argument is that Sen. Lankford, his own conduct, is related to what Cruz and Hawley did, and it's not appropriate for him to weigh in on whether Cruz and Hawley violated rules and ought to have repercussions," Bookbinder said. "He should step down, he should recuse, because he's too involved himself."

"Sen. Lankford generally has had a good reputation in terms of his conduct and being someone who was generally ethical and generally behaved in an appropriate way, whatever you may think on one side of the other of his political views," Bookbinder said. "And I think that's why a lot of people were really surprised to see Sen. Lankford throwing in with Sen. Cruz and others who were questioning the legitimacy of the election, pushing for the Electoral College results to be overturned or at least delayed.

"His conduct seemed surprising and out of character, and that's why Sen. Lankford recusing himself from ethics committee consideration of these issues would be a step to restore his reputation for ethics and good conduct."

A Lankford spokesperson declined comment and directed Public Radio Tulsa to ethics committee staff, who did not return requests for comment. Lankford has previously expressed to Public Radio Tulsa that he does not believe he shares in responsibility for the siege on the Capitol.

Bookbinder said he recognizes that the odds of the committee officially reprimanding or even recommending the expulsion of any senators in this instance may not be great, but that such actions could be warranted.

"I think that it may well be merited in these instances where senators' conduct appears to have encouraged and contributed to an insurrection against the government," Bookbinder said.

"These are really extreme events. Senators themselves were afraid for their lives and were victims of what happened on Jan. 6th, so I think that there is at least some possibility that members of the Senate Ethics Committee will take this seriously and consider some action against their colleagues," he said. 

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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