Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-California). (Photo: Danny Hammontree / Flickr)
As Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess, it still has a lot on its plate. In the final stretch of this lame-duck 111th Congress, legislators must address Bush-era tax cuts, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the ratification of a new arms-control treaty with Russia. With all of the important issues left to resolve, why is the House Ethics Committee dragging its feet regarding the investigation of Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-California)?
In August, the House Ethics Committee formally charged Representative Waters with three counts of violating the letter and spirit of House rules and federal regulations for improperly intervening with Treasury officials to bailout OneUnited Bank, a bank in which her husband owned at least $350,000 in stock and on the board of which he once served. Her public trial was scheduled to begin when Congress returned from its Thanksgiving recess on November 29th.
On November 19th, the chair of the House Ethics Committee issued the following statement:
"The committee voted to recommit the matter regarding Representative Maxine Waters to the investigative subcommittee due to materials discovered that may have had an effect on the investigative subcommittee's transmittal to the committee … As a result, the adjudicatory subcommittee no longer has jurisdiction over this matter and the adjudicatory hearing previously scheduled for November 29, 2010 will not be held."
Translated into simple English, Waters's trial has been postponed indefinitely (probably never to be heard of again).
The case against her appears to have unraveled as, according to the Associated Press, a recently discovered e-mail by Waters's chief of staff - who's also her grandson - says that she is closely watching the bank bailout legislation, but makes no mention of her husband or OneUnited Bank. Even though OneUnited Bank did receive $12 million in bailout funds, officials from the Treasury Department have stated Waters played no role in the decision.
Politico has also reported that Morgan Kim, the deputy chief counsel for the House Ethics Committee, and Stacy Sovereign, another committee lawyer, have been placed on indefinite "paid administrative leave." Kim is the committee's lead attorney on the Waters case. According to Politico, "The ethics committee declined to comment on Kim's or Sovereign's status, saying it does not speak publicly about internal committee issues or personnel status." All indications are that Kim and Sovereign have been removed from all active committee cases.
It is unclear as to why Kim and Sovereign have been removed from the Waters case. It is a strange coincidence that their removal was announced on the same day that the committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-California) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Alabama), announced the indefinite delay.
If officials from the Treasury Department are on record stating that Representative Waters played no role in the decision, and the deputy chief counsel and another lawyer have been removed from the case, why "recommit the matter … to the investigative subcommittee?" Why not just admit that based upon the recently discovered information, Waters is exonerated and the investigation is over, or, at least, "recommit the matter" to the subcommittee with a recommendation that they end the investigation?
When considering how the committee is handling the Waters case, one should also consider how the same committee voted to punish Congressman Charles Rangel (D-New York). These cases may raise more questions than they answer. The committee voted to censure, rather than reprimand, Rangel for committing 11 counts of fundraising and financial misdeeds. Does Rangel's punishment fit the offense(s)? Short of expulsion from the House, censure is the most severe punishment that the House can impose upon a member. Rangel argues (and there is precedent to support it) that censure is too harsh in this case. Censure is usually imposed for violations including bribery, accepting improper gifts, personal use of campaign funds and sexual misconduct; none is present in his case. A reprimand appears to be more fitting for Rangel's offenses.
Questions also remain regarding the investigatory process and the racial makeup of those being investigated. Political watchdog organizations such as the National Legal and Policy Center, the Landmark Legal Foundation and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government have all made requests to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to investigate members of congress for ethics violations. The interesting data point to consider is that all of the active OCE investigations focus on members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
It's not that CBC members have or have not done anything wrong. What is interesting is how the allegations of ethics violations brought against White congressional members such as Representatives Pete Visclosky (D-Indiana), Alan Mollohan (D-West Virginia), Jim Moran (D-Virginia), Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) or Senator Jane Harmon (D-California) have been disposed of differently - with the case against Sam Graves (R-Missouri) being thrown out. Right may be right, but wrong and the punishment for wrongdoing appear to be discretionary.
Congressman Rangel was convicted. Treat him fairly. His punishment should fit the offense and should be consistent with those who have come before him; reprimand, not censure. The case against Congresswoman Waters has become all sizzle and no steak. The House Ethics Committee should always be ethical. It is one thing to "recommit the matter" and another to clear her good name.