GOP wants ethics trials before November

House Republicans Tuesday called on Democrats to schedule public ethics trials for Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) before the November elections.

In an unusual break from the bipartisan secrecy the panel normally maintains, Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the ethics committee, issued a public statement accusing Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and committee Democrats of “stalling” the resolution of the Rangel and Waters matters.

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“It is in the best interest of transparency and fairness to the American people, Reps. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters and other members of the U.S. House of Representatives that the House ethics committee stop stalling the resolution of the Rangel and Waters matters and complete these public trials prior to the November elections,” Bonner said.

The lengthy written statement signed by Bonner and the four other GOP members of the ethics panel highlights the partisan division on the ethics committee, which has been exacerbated by tensions over the midterm elections.

It also signals a breakdown in Bonner’s once-positive relationship with Lofgren. Shortly after Bonner was appointed to the panel three years ago, the pair expressed deep respect for one another and praised their ability to work together.

Bonner specifically took issue with comments House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) made over the weekend. Bonner blasted Hoyer for inaccurately saying that the scheduling of the trials is “up to Jo Bonner, and Zoe Lofgren, the Democrat.”

Hoyer also called for the trials to “be resolved as quickly as possible” and attributed the unwillingness of the committee to set trial dates prior to the November election to “their own scheduling problems.”

“After months of trial preparation — and, in the Rangel matter, two years of investigation — Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren should have already issued notices of public trial schedules in both the Rangel and Waters matters,” Bonner said in the statement.

Bonner pointed to committee rules allowing adjudicatory subcommittees to meet “at the discretion of the chair.”

He also said that members of the committee have “repeatedly” expressed their willingness to meet in October and hold the trial and noted that in the past, committee members have returned to Washington to conclude “pressing” ethics issues.

“Rep. Rangel and Rep. Waters have publicly and rightfully demanded the setting of their respective trials prior to the November election to ensure swift and fair resolution of their matters,” Bonner wrote. “In our opinion, Reps. Rangel and Waters deserve the opportunity to publicly and timely address the charges against them.”

Ethics watchdogs immediately bemoaned the panel’s partisan meltdown as the latest in a long string of ethics committee dysfunction, including a 10-year ethics truce during the Republican majority that ended after the panel admonished former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Afterward, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) tightened control by ousting its independent-minded chairman and appointing new members to the committee that had donated to DeLay’s legal defense fund.

Democrats protested by rejecting the new GOP chairman’s choice for staff director, and the panel failed to function for more than a year.

“This latest partisan grenade is unfortunate for the process,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. “It should reinforce the need for the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent voice in the process.”

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She also lamented the timing of the trials, arguing that delays are unfair to Rangel and Waters, who deserve an opportunity to make their cases, as well as to voters who will have to determine whom to support without hearing both sides of the matters.

Democrats are in an awkward position because of the length of the pair’s separate investigations and their unwillingness to negotiate a punishment.

“There are few good options at this point,” McGehee said.

The ethics committee has been struggling to set a date for the public trials. Last Thursday the committee huddled in its basement office to try to hash out an agreement on the scheduling, but Republicans and Democrats were still at an impasse as of late last week.

Democratic leaders would no doubt like to avoid the spectacle of back-to-back public ethics trials for two of their members before the November elections. They have been frustrated with Rangel and Waters ever since both rejected attempts to negotiate punishments and avoid a public trial.

Republicans, who stand to gain seats in the November election and possibly retake the majority, have every interest in showcasing the ethics charges against two prominent Democrats. Rangel, too, said he would like to have a chance to clear his name before the midterm vote and has expressed frustration over the ethics committee’s failure to produce a trial schedule.

Waters has urged the panel to hold the trial before the election, but last week said only that she would comment at the appropriate time.

The blast from Bonner continues a difficult stretch for Lofgren, who faced criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle last week for inviting comedian Stephen Colbert to testify about migrant workers at a hearing of a House panel on immigration. Hoyer and others complained that Colbert made a mockery of Congress with a satirical comedy routine on the plight of migrant workers, a sensitive life-and-death matter. Others argued that Colbert’s appearance ramped up media attention and scored live coverage for a hearing that otherwise would have received scant attention.

At one point during the hearing, Lofgren joked that the last time the hearing room was so packed with audience members and cameras was for President Clinton’s impeachment hearings a dozen years earlier.