By Susan Crabtree and Jordan Fabian - 08/10/10 12:25 AM EDT
The House ethics committee on Monday outlined its charges against Rep. Maxine Waters, who is accused of helping a bank in which her husband owned stock secure federal bailout funds.
The committee charged the 10-term California Democrat with three counts of violating House rules and the federal ethics code in connection with her effort to arrange a 2008 meeting between Treasury officials and representatives with OneUnited bank.
The committee also accused Waters of violating the “spirit” of a House rule prohibiting lawmakers from using their positions for financial gain, as well as a government ethics statute banning the dispensing of “special favors.”
Waters has vehemently denied wrongdoing and said she would rather defend herself at an ethics trial than admit to “something I did not do.”
In a motion to dismiss the charges, which the ethics panel has denied, Waters’s attorney, Stanley M. Brand, said the congresswoman had done nothing wrong.
“This committee asserts that Rep. Waters improperly used her position to ‘preserve her husband’s investment in OneUnited,’ ” he wrote. “Yet, after its exhaustive investigation, it cannot identify a single active step taken by Rep. Waters in furtherance of that goal.”
The release of the formal charges comes at a bad time for Democrats, as Waters is the second party lawmaker heading to a public trial after the August recess — with time running out before the November midterms. In late July, the House ethics committee charged Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) with 13 counts of breaking House rules and federal ethics statutes.
Now, for the third straight week, as House lawmakers return from recess Tuesday to pass a $26 billion state aid package, Democratic leaders must watch their legislative agenda take a backseat to ethics scandals that Republicans already are using against them.
The ethics committee last week released a detailed report, by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), on Waters’s alleged wrongdoing in the OneUnited matter, but it did not outline the formal charges against her until Monday.
The panel’s investigative subcommittee, to buttress its case, released more information Monday about Waters’s involvement with OneUnited and a meeting she helped arrange between the National Bankers Association (NBA), a trade group of minority owned banks of which OneUnited is a member, and Treasury officials. Three of the four attendees NBA invited had ties to OneUnited, according to the OCE report.
OneUnited asked for $50 million in assistance to cover expected losses from the collapse of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but Treasury lacked the authority to grant the request, the ethics committee said.According to the 10-page Statement of Alleged Violation, Waters “did not instruct” her chief of staff, Mikael Moore, to stop assisting OneUnited after she told Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) she would halt her outreach.
In early September, Frank had warned Waters against getting involved because of her husband’s ties, telling her he would handle all contact on behalf of the bank, according to the report, even before he knew about her husband’s OneUnited stock. It is unclear when Frank learned about his holdings.
But Moore, who is Waters’s grandson, contacted OneUnited executives in late September, sending them publicly available draft legislation of a broad Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bill that would have permitted Treasury to buy certain assets of banks.
OneUnited CEO Kevin Cohee and OneUnited senior counsel Robert Cooper exchanged several e-mails with Moore that September. In one, Cooper wrote: “Thank you for all your hard work!”
In October, the legislation authorizing the TARP contained language intended to apply to OneUnited, according to Frank. The bank eventually applied for TARP funds and received $12 million in December.
The ethics committee valued Williams’s stock holdings at over $350,000 at the end of 2007, between 4.6 and 15.2 percent of the couple’s net worth, according to Waters’s financial disclosure reports. By the end of September 2008, the stock’s value plummeted more than 50 percent, to $175,000, because of the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“If OneUnited failed, [Waters’s] husband’s investment would have been worthless,” the subcommittee wrote.
The panel also reported that Cohee had previously hosted a fundraiser for Waters at his home and that he and his wife contributed to her campaign on “numerous occasions.”
The investigative subcommittee denied two motions filed by Waters: one to provide further clarification of the charges against her and another to dismiss the case.
The fact that her grandson handled the OneUnited matter for her raises even more ethics concerns, watchdogs argue. House rules bar members from hiring for their congressional offices nearly anyone with a family relationship, though not grandchildren.
“Congress has anti-nepotism rules, which sadly don’t rule out members from hiring their grandchildren,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said, “The family and the business relationship is just so close — it defies credibility that he would be acting on his own without her knowledge.”
Waters plans a vigorous defense this week. Her attorneys previously have argued that Moore acted without her knowledge and compared her office’s activities to those of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), whom the committee exonerated last year.
Graves had invited a business partner of his wife’s to testify before a committee. The hearing covered the industry in which the witness and Graves’s wife were investors, and he failed to disclose the relationship at the hearing.
This post was originally posted at 12:33 p.m. and updated at 1:56 p.m. and 8:24 p.m.