It was easy to miss this week, but the House Ethics Committee announced that it is continuing to investigate potential campaign finance violations by Massachusetts Rep. Lori Trahan. The Committee released a report by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics saying there is substantial reason to believe Trahan got more than $300,000 in improper loans from her husband. Paul Singer is the editor of WGBH's New England Center for Investigative Reporting, and in his prior job, he spent most of the last decade covering congressional ethics scandals. He spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Arun Rath about what Trahan is accused of and how her case is likely to play out. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: It seems kind of cut and dry that nobody, including a spouse, can give a big loan to a congressional candidate for their campaign. But she got a big loan from her husband, right?

Paul Singer: The beauty of congressional ethics rules is that none of them are cut and dry. They are written by members of Congress, right? So they're designed to be fuzzy enough that they're unbreakable. But in this case, right, it looks like she got a loan from her husband. But the fact of the matter is that she says her husband and she had a prenuptial agreement, so all the money that he had and all the money that she had was community property, and she had a right to all of it. So it wasn't a loan from her husband that went into the account, it was a loan from her. Now that's actually legal.

Rath: Did she have this agreement to show or was it a verbal prenuptial agreement?

Singer: There is an agreement that has been written, apparently. I have not seen it. What has been released in the ethics report is a summary of this prenup written by a third-party lawyer as kind of the verifier. There definitely is some sort of agreement. And then we get into this gray area like, can you actually argue that when the husband transfers money from a business account into a joint account and then she writes the check from the joint account to the campaign, why didn't she just write the first check? There's all these questions that will arise. But they certainly have an argument to make that this was joint money, not his money.

Rath: In terms of impact, is $300,000 in a campaign like this a lot of money?

Singer: Sure, yeah. I think it's like 15% of the total amount that she raised for the campaign. And the timing of it is really what catches everyone's eye, that she took this money and the next day bought $300,000 of television advertising. This is just before the election. It is the primary election, and she won it by 150 votes in a very crowded Democratic field. A couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of television ads, that could be a significant factor in the race.

Rath: So how does it work? You also have to explain what's going to happen if the Ethics Committee rejects that defense and says, no, we're not buying it. What can they do to her?

Singer: The Ethics Committee doesn't have any particularly useful penalties. They can write a letter saying you were bad, you shouldn't have done that. And sometimes they'll say, you should give some of this money back someplace. But they have no real penalty enforcement. And they've done this under procedure with no deadlines. So we could be sitting here a year from now having the exact same conversation and nothing has changed.

Rath: So we don't know how long it'll take for this to resolve in a way that won't really do anything anyway, when it is resolved.

Singer: Right. And this is the thing: the real penalty here is that Lori Trahan will have to go into her next reelection campaign and her opponent will be able to say, hey, you're still under investigation by the House Ethics Committee because this could take forever.

Rath: Again, you've watched congressional ethics cases for years. On the spectrum of congressional ethics, is this Trahan case unusual?

Singer: One of the things that is unusual about this case is that Lori Trahan, at the time of these money transfers, was not a member of Congress. She was running for her first congressional campaign. And usually the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent office that sort of vets these cases for the Ethics Committee, they have usually said that's not our jurisdiction, we are only responsible for members of Congress once they're members of Congress. So this year, it's her, Trahan, and it's Rashida Tlaib, I believe, from Michigan, and then there's Congressman Spano from Florida. These are three members of Congress in their first terms who are being investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics for campaign finance issues that took place when they were not yet members of Congress. That's kind of interesting.

Rath: Are they going after them? Is this somehow targeted?

Singer: This is the question. And they don't talk, obviously, so I don't know. I think one of the issues that comes up here is the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, which usually has jurisdiction over campaign finance issues, has been completely hamstrung because of the partisan divide. They couldn't get enough commissioners and now they don't have a quorum, they can't do anything. So maybe this is the Office of Congressional Ethics stepping in and saying, well, we'll take over that jurisdiction and we will handle these cases. I honestly don't know. But it means that if you're running for office for the first time this year, you better be damn careful about how you handle your campaign finances, because it's possible that you will walk into office with an ethics investigation over your head.