U.S. House committees demand info from Ex-Im bank

By Susan Cornwell
Committee chairman U.S. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) (R) holds a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing about e-mails belonging to former IRS official Lois Lerner, on Capitol Hill in Washington June 24, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives committees demanded extensive information from the Export-Import Bank on Thursday, including communications on reported allegations of kickbacks there, as Congress grapples with whether to reauthorize the bank's charter.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is headed by Representative Darrell Issa and has broad investigative powers, wrote to bank Chairman Fred Hochberg requesting documents on allegations that four officials were suspended or removed as investigators looked into charges of improper gifts and kickbacks.

"The committee is concerned that the breadth and seriousness of the allegations may suggest a broader culture of corruption at the Bank," the letter from Issa and Representative Jim Jordan said. They said Hochberg described a confusing ethics oversight system in recent testimony to lawmakers, compounding their concerns.

Issa's probe comes amid debates over the future of the bank, which offers financing to foreign buyers of U.S. goods. Some major U.S. companies like Boeing rely on the bank to help them compete in international markets, but opponents say this promotes corporate cronyism.

The 80-year-old bank will be forced to close unless Congress acts to renew its charter by Sept. 30. Last year, its loans were behind $37.4 billion of exports and 205,000 U.S. jobs.

A subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bank, also wrote Hochberg on Thursday asking for interviews with three senior bank officials as well as minutes of Ex-Im board meetings dating back to 2010.

Representative Patrick McHenry, the subcommittee chair, said the information was needed as part of oversight and "to fully assess the Bank's April 23rd re-authorization request."

"We have received the letters and we are working to respond to the committees," Matt Bevens, a spokesman for the bank, said.

Ex-Im's future has been thrown into doubt by attacks on the bank from conservative lawmakers including the chairman of the financial services committee, Representative Jeb Hensarling. They say the bank favors multi-nationals at taxpayers' expense.

But Ex-Im's supporters say it also helps thousands of small U.S. businesses with trade credit insurance or loan guarantees. They also say other countries do more to support their exports.

The kickback allegations were first reported last month by The Wall Street Journal. Hochberg told Congress recently that two of the four employees in the article had left the bank and "if you are doing any funny business, we are onto you."

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)