Rep. Waters forms legal defense fund to wage fight against ethics charges

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has established a legal defense fund to pay for any expenses associated with her full-throttled battle against ethics charges that she used her position to help a bank in which her husband owned stock.

Waters filed paperwork with the ethics committee to form the fund in late August. Her office did not comment about whether she had already held fundraisers to help fill the fund’s coffers or has events planned.

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“I have made clear from the beginning that I have not violated any House rules and therefore will mount a vigorous defense against these baseless charges,” Waters said in a statement. “To enable me to best defend myself, I have established a legal defense fund as permitted by the ethics committee.”

The 10-term House veteran and prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus has launched an unusually pointed and public defense against charges that she violated House rules by setting up a meeting between Treasury officials and OneUnited Bank, where her husband once served on the board and still owns an estimated $175,000 in stock. OneUnited Bank later received millions of dollars in federal bailout money.

Never one to back down from a fight, Waters has rebuffed attempts to reach a settlement, which would require her to apologize and accept a punishment. Instead, she plans to battle the allegations in a public trial to be held sometime this fall. That decision is vexing Democratic leaders, as it ensures that the ethics charges will continue to play out in the media two months before a November midterm election in which Republicans stand to gain dozens of seats and potentially win back a congressional majority.

In mid-August Waters held an unusually lengthy press conference, complete with PowerPoint presentation, to outline her defense. Her attorneys Stanley Brand and Andrew Herman also sent a letter to the ethics committee last week, demanding that the panel stop gathering evidence against her. The letter takes issue with what they argue are ongoing investigative activities the committee has conducted after the formal probe was over and Waters was charged with violating House rules.

The ethics committee, which usually conducts its work in secret, did not respond publicly to the letter.

Members can set up legal defense funds and solicit contributions specifically for the account, or they can use money in their campaign committees or leadership political action committees (PACs).

Waters is not usually a prolific fundraiser. She raised an estimated $450,000 this cycle and spent $356,139 on campaign-related events, staff and fundraising costs, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports. As of June 30, she had $192,000 cash on hand, as well as a $140,000 debt. She has given just $350 to a party-related group, the California Democratic State Central Committee, so far this cycle.

Her leadership PAC, People Helping People, has just $990 in cash on hand. It raised an estimated $8,500 and doled out just one contribution this cycle — $2,500 to Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) in May.

Waters did not use her campaign committee or leadership PAC to pay any legal fees incurred from the ethics investigation as of June 30, according to the FEC reports.

Candidates sometimes prefer to set up separate defense funds so donors can decide whether they want to help members fight charges of breaking the law or congressional rules, or strictly to help them get reelected.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who also has chosen to fight multiple ethics charges in a public trial set for this fall, depends on his reelection campaign and leadership PAC to underwrite his legal battles. So far, Rangel’s legal fees have topped out at $2.1 million.

His campaign committee spent more than $110,000 in July and August alone, according to a pre-primary report filed Thursday with the FEC. The majority of the funds, $100,000, went to the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, another $10,000 went to Oldaker, Belair & Wittie, while he doled out $1,200 to Washington attorney John W. Kern.