By Susan Crabtree - 09/13/10 02:15 AM EDT
Watchdog groups expect the upcoming ethics trials for Reps. Charles Rangel
(D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to take place after the November
election to avoid political fallout.
“I think ethics hearings shortly before the midterm elections overly politicizes the ethics process, which in the long term, is not in anyone's interest,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Craig Holman of Public Citizen also predicted the adjudicatory hearings would occur when members return for a short lame-duck session. In many ways, though, the prospect of the trials has already become campaign fodder so the damage has been done, he said.
“Both of these pending trials should have been concluded months ago,” he said. “The House ethics committee stumbled miserably in these cases, allowing them to be delayed and delayed, until they have become hot election issues.”
Rangel and Waters, as well as their constituents, deserve a more speedy resolution, Holman argued.
“Given the very partisan and political nature of Congress, however, it is worrisome to allow Congress to conduct trials of potential ethics violations very near the election,” he said. “This could set a troubling precedent for future partisan actions.”
During an organizational meeting for the adjudicatory committee, which took place before the House left for its August recess, ethics committee members pointed the finger at Rangel for dragging out the investigation by failing to respond promptly to requests for information. Members were silent on what caused Waters’s probe to continue until July other than her refusal to accept punishment and publicly apologize.
Rangel and Waters both rebuffed attempts to settle their cases and have chosen to aggressively battle the charges in a public trial. The ethics committee has indicated the trials would take place sometime this fall – setting up an unprecedented scenario in which two Democrats would be tried before their peers in close proximity to an election in which Republicans are expected to gain seats and perhaps win back the majority.
The ethics committee did not respond to an inquiry about the timing of the trials.
Already depressed about the potential for a Republican takeover, Democratic leaders have been wringing their hands over Rangel’s and Water’s decision as it ensures the ethics charges will continue to play out in the media until the election.
Waters is accused of using her position to help a bank in which her husband owns stock win millions of dollars in bailout funds. After a 21-month investigation, the ethics panel accused Rangel of failing to pay taxes on rental income from a Dominican Republic villa; of improperly using his office to solicit millions of dollars in funds for an education center bearing his name at the City College of New York; and of improperly using a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign offices.
Waters has already made it through California’s primary and does not face a serious general election challenger.
Rangel still has to get by Tuesday’s Democratic primary in
New York. A poll released in July that was taken before the charges
against Rangel were made public showed Rangel with 39 percent of the vote
and 21 percent backing state assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV.
During a lengthy 90-minute press conference outlining her defense, Waters downplayed the possibility that her ethics trial, which could happen around the same time as Rangel's, would hurt Democrats in the November midterm elections.
“As far as I am concerned, most of it is speculation,” she
said. “Each member has to be concerned that they are representing
their constituents — that they are doing the best job they can do …
[and] that they are honoring the law and living by the law.”