House Ethics Committee appoints outside counsel to handle Waters case

The House Ethics Committee on Wednesday appointed a high-profile attorney to serve as an outside counsel handling ethics charges against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The move comes in response to complaints from Waters and ethics watchdog groups that the panel cannot deal with her case impartially, and Waters was quick to argue Wednesday that the committee’s odd step vindicates her claims that the investigation is “misguided.”

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“Today’s action is a recognition by the committee that its investigation of me was misguided, flawed and could go no further,” Waters said in a statement. “I am confident that the counsel’s review of the committee’s misconduct will conclude that my rights were violated and further investigation of me is not warranted.”

The bipartisan leaders of the Ethics Committee had a different explanation for seeking outside counsel.

“The committee’s decision reflects the high priority of this unique matter and the need to resolve it with the utmost care, diligence and integrity,” Committee Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement.

Billy Martin of the Washington law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP was chosen as outside counsel.

Martin has worked with a number of high-profile officials and other well-known people. He worked with Monica Lewinsky’s family during the Clinton sex scandal, NFL quarterback Michael Vick during his problems related to dogfighting, and former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after a sting in a Minneapolis airport bathroom and then resigned from the Senate. Martin also represented NBA guard Allen Iverson and actor Wesley Snipes.

The Ethics Committee heads conceded that “serious allegations” have been made about the panel’s conduct, and stipulated that “a thorough review of all of these serious allegations will be the very first task of the outside counsel’s engagement, including providing an additional opportunity for Rep. Waters to clarify her concerns to the committee and outside counsel.”

“The committee has not taken these allegations lightly,” the panel said. 

Waters was quick to latch on to the fact that the committee’s conduct — not her own — will be the first focus of the new investigators.

“For the first time in the history of the Ethics Committee, it has initiated an inquiry into its own misconduct and taken the extraordinary step of hiring an outside counsel to explore the depth and breadth of the committee’s misconduct,” Waters said. “Given what’s already in the public domain, it’s hard to imagine that a deeper review into the committee’s conduct would do anything but reveal more troubling information.”

Waters is accused of violating House ethics rules by helping to steer Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to a Boston-based bank in which her husband invested. The bank, OneUnited, bills itself as the “first black-owned Internet bank and the largest black-owned bank” in the U.S., and it received a little more than $12 million in TARP funds in 2008.

Waters argues that she cannot get a fair hearing from the Ethics panel due to what she claimed is a Republican slant to the committee. Last year, she cited allegations of “politically motivated” misconduct by two lawyers who were working on her case and have since been suspended.

More recently, she argued that the leak of documents related to her case from the Ethics Committee is another problematic sign for the panel, as they reveal partisan infighting over her case.

Waters’s lawyer wrote this week to the Ethics Committee that “this committee can never conduct an impartial and unbiased inquiry into this matter.”

On Monday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called on House leaders to appoint an outside counsel to investigate the Ethics Committee in light of how the Waters case has proceeded. Other ethics watchdog groups are reportedly calling on Bonner to step down from his position.

-- Mike Lillis contributed to this report.

-- Published at 1:08 p.m. and updated at 8:30 p.m.