Reviving a contentious issue from US Representative John Tierney’s bruising 2012 reelection battle, the House Ethics Committee on Friday said it is considering opening an investigation into the nine-term Salem Democrat.
The committee was responding to a report on Tierney from the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent agency that refers complaints to Congress when it finds there is “substantial reason to believe a violation may have occurred,” according to the office’s website.
The Ethics Committee did not disclose the nature of the report it received on Tierney, but last year he faced questions about $223,000 that federal prosecutors said his wife received through a joint bank account she managed for her brother Robert Eremian, a federal fugitive who was running an illegal gambling business on Antigua.
Patrice Tierney served a month in federal prison in 2011 after admitting to “willful blindness” about the source of the funds and pleading guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns.
The Ethics Committee was required to acknowledge it had received reports on potential violations by Tierney as well as three other members of Congress, including Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann .
But leaders of the committee cautioned against concluding that legislators committed violations based on the referrals from the Office of Congressional Ethics’ referrals.
“The mere fact of a referral . . . does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee,” wrote committee chairman K. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, and Linda T. Sanchez of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, in identical statements on each of the House members.
Officials from nonpartisan open-government groups said the Ethics Committee should investigate to settle questions about whether the money from Tierney’s brother-in-law should have been disclosed on public disclosure forms and reported as income to the IRS.
“The Office of Congressional Ethics made its initial recommendation that there’s at least smoke. It’s now up to the Ethics Committee to continue its work and move forward,” said Stephen Spaulding, staff counsel at Common Cause, one of three open government groups contacted by the Globe that have called for an investigation.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, which filed its report on Tierney in June, is a nonpartisan organization created by Congress in 2008 to bring more transparency to ethics investigations. The office reviews complaints filed primarily by citizens, but may also review matters raised by board members and staff and refers the cases it believes merit formal investigation to the Ethics Committee.
The office also referred reports on Tim Bishop, a New York Democrat, and Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, to the Ethics Committee, which now has until Sept. 11 to decide whether to investigate.
Both John and Patrice Tierney have described the money she received through the joint account with her brother Robert as a gift from a relative that was exempt from requirements that Tierney disclose the source, or report the funds on federal income tax returns.
“It was a gift to my wife, so it was not income; it was not reportable,” Tierney said last July.
On Friday, Tierney reiterated that defense.
“There is nothing new that has not already been reviewed in both a court of law and by the voters of my district who sent me back to Congress,” Tierney said in a prepared statement. “I hope the Committee will expedite its review and I am confident it will find the allegations meritless as they have no foundation in law or fact.”
But testimony by Patrice Tierney at her brother Daniel Eremian’s trial on federal gambling charges gave the impression that she received the money from Robert in exchange for work. She said the money was his way of appreciating her for a variety of personal and business-related tasks.
“I did a lot of work,” she testified at one point.
Several tax experts consulted by the Globe last year said if she received the $223,000 for work, the money could be considered income that should be reported to the IRS.
“It would be difficult to win the argument that the money was a gift, based on the fact that she admitted working,” said James P. Angelini, director of the master of science taxation program at Suffolk University, in an interview last year.
But D. Sean McMahon, a former IRS attorney who reviewed the matter for the Tierney campaign, said last year that any suggestion that the money was income “is without merit based upon the facts.”
Prosecutors have said that more than $7 million passed through the account while Patrice Tierney was managing it.
The gambling enterprise run by Robert Eremian with the help of his brother Daniel took center stage in the 2012 campaign after Daniel was convicted on illegal gambling charges and said Tierney “knew everything” about the Eremians’ multimillion-dollar gambling business — an accusation echoed by Robert Eremian.
Neither brother ever produced evidence to back up the claim and Tierney denied the accusation, saying he was unaware of the scope of his wife’s involvement with Robert’s finances and never suspected Robert was involved in illegal gambling.
“Let me be 100 percent clear,” Tierney said in July 2012. “As I have said numerous times and consistently from the beginning, including the first day any news broke on this, I believed at that time that my brother-in-law was working in a legitimate, legal online gambling business in Antigua.”
But Republican challenger Richard R. Tisei repeatedly underscored Tierney’s association with the Eremians’ gambling business during a hard-fought campaign that Tisei lost by a margin of only 1 percent.
Tisei, a former state senator who is considering another bid for Tierney’s seat, said Friday that Tierney will face questions about the money his wife received even if the Ethics Committee declines to open a formal investigation.
“John Tierney had a duty, as our congressman, to be fully open and honest with the voters about funds derived from his family’s illegal gambling operation,” Tisei said. “Even if you accept his explanation that these were funds were ‘gifts,’ the fact that he has accepted and retained this money demonstrates that he is clearly unfit to hold a position of public trust.”
Seth Moulton, a Marblehead native and former Marine, has said he plans to challenge Tierney in next year’s Democratic primary in the Sixth Congressional District. But on Friday, Moulton appeared reluctant to address the controversy stemming from Tierney’s association with illegal gambling.
“I hope this investigation does not become a distraction in the campaign,” he said.
If the Ethics Committee does not open a formal investigation of Tierney, it will have to make public the full report by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.