The House ethics committee said Friday that it voted unanimously to create the four-member investigative subcommittee, which will be led by Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, with the task of deciding whether Whitfield broke the law or violated congressional rules of conduct.
The move heightens an investigation going on for more than a year, with the Office of Congressional Ethics last May finding substantial reason to believe that Whitfield "permitted his wife to use his congressional office to advance and facilitate her lobbying activities and the lobbying activities of her employer in violation of House rules and standards of conduct."
Whitfield, who represents the First Congressional District, said Friday he's being targeted by Tennessee Walking Horse industry opponents of his bill to crack down on the painful process of soring, used to make show horses step higher in the ring.
"The allegation that my wife lobbied my office or my staff to convince me to introduce and pass the legislation is absurd," he said in a written statement. "This is an issue I have followed for many years. I introduced the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Actbecause in my humble opinion it was the right thing to do."
Whitfield's anti-soring bill gained more than 300 co-sponsors but failed to receive a vote on the House floor.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said Friday that Whitfield has backed animal welfare legislation "from the start of his public service, and more than a decade before his wife became professionally involved with the Humane Society."
"The groups who brought the ethics committee complaint are engaged in tormenting horses for profit, and this complaint against the author of the legislation is just one of the many obstacles they've tried to place in its way," Pacelle said in an email.
Board members of the Performance Show Horse Association wrote the House ethics committee in December of 2013, making accusations of impropriety.
The Office of Congressional Ethics subsequently took up the matter and said it found that from 2011 to 2014 Whitfield's congressional office helped his wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, and the Humane Society with "scheduling as many as 100 meetings with other congressional offices."
While such meetings appear focused on the anti-soring bill, according to the Office of Congressional Ethics Whitfield's wife also communicated with his office on a range of other animal welfare legislation.