Watchdogs support post-election trials for Rangel and Waters

Watchdog groups say the House ethics committee made the right decision in scheduling the public trials for Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) after the election.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the ethics panel, announced late Thursday afternoon that the trials of Rangel and Waters would begin Nov. 15 and Nov. 29, respectively.

Republicans on the committee — as well as Rangel and Waters — had been pushing for the trials to begin before the November election. That would have allowed the two veteran Democrats to defend themselves before voters in their districts went to the polls.

Last week, Republicans on the ethics committee issued an unprecedented statement accusing Lofgren of purposely stalling the trials. The sharply worded rebuke was a rare breach of the panel’s usual bipartisan decorum.

But ethics experts say holding the trials before the midterm elections would have undoubtedly politicized the ethics process even more.

“The ethics committee never should have taken as long as it did,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer. “But there’s no basis for doing trials one month out from an election — I don’t think that would be fair to anyone.”

Ethics committee rules bar the panel from initiating investigations against members 60 days before an election, but those prohibitions do not extend to the scheduling of public trials. Watchdogs, however, believe they should.

“There’s a reason why they have a 60-day rule. … You automatically make it political if you do anything in the weeks when everyone is focusing on an election,” Wertheimer said.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also criticized the ethics panel for mishandling the Rangel and Waters matters, but said holding the trials after the election is the right decision, regardless of Lofgren’s motives.

“Holding the trials before the election overly and unhelpfully politicizes the process,” Sloan said.

The House Ethics Committee in July accused Rangel of 13 ethics violations related to his failure to pay taxes on rental income on a villa in the Dominican Republic, use of Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center at City College of New York and use of four rent-controlled apartments.

Later that same month, the committee revealed three charges against Waters in connection with a bank affiliated with her husband.

To the chagrin of Democratic Party leaders, Rangel and Waters both rebuffed attempts to settle their cases and opted to take on the charges in public trials.