Ethics nixes lawyers ahead of Waters trial

The House ethics committee has placed two of its attorneys on administrative leave following missteps in the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), according to a source familiar with the matter.

Cindy Morgan Kim, the deputy chief counsel and lead attorney on the Waters case, and Stacy Sovereign, who supplemented Kim on the case, were placed on administrative leave the same day Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the panel, and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), its ranking member, announced an indefinite delay of Waters's public trial, which was set to begin Nov. 29.

The departures are a bad sign for the ethics panel’s case against Waters and give the 20-term California lawmaker leverage to achieve a reduced penalty, if not a dismissal of the case. While the ethics committee does not operate under the same rules of criminal procedure, members and the public have a recent reminder of the prosecutorial misconduct involved in the case against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

A jury convicted him of making false statements for his failure to list certain items on his financial disclosure forms in October 2008. But in April 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the department was dropping the case because prosecutors failed to share evidence with Stevens’s defense lawyers.

The dismissal was a major setback for the Justice Department and its public integrity section. A court-appointed counsel and the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility are investigating the prosecutor’s actions in the Stevens case and the attorneys were put on leave.

An investigative subcommittee of the ethics panel has charged Waters with three counts of violating ethics rules for helping to set up a meeting between Treasury officials and OneUnited bank. Waters's husband owns thousands of dollars in OneUnited stock and previously served on its board.

Waters has vigorously fought the charges, arguing that she was acting on behalf of minority-owned banks as a whole, not just OneUnited. Waters held a press conference on Monday in front of the committee room where the trial had originally been scheduled to occur and denounced the delay. She said the panel has denied her due process and has repeatedly failed to show that she influenced anyone or gained any benefit.

The ethics committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kim served on the panel from 2006 to July 2008 and then left for a one-year stint at the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, where she reviewed programs and investigated “sensitive allegations involving high-level department employees at the request of the attorney general or Congressional committees,” according to an ethics committee press release announcing her re-hiring.

In 2006, the ethics committee paid her $121,617, according to Legistorm, which has a database of recent staff salaries. By the end of June 2010, she had received nearly $89,000 for her work.

Sovereign has worked on the panel since at least December 2009, according to Legistorm. By the end of June 2010, she received nearly $74,000 for her work.

In the release announcing Kim's re-hiring, Lofgren and Bonner praised her and said she was an experienced investigator.

“I am delighted that Morgan will be returning to the Committee as her initial tenure won bipartisan praise,” Lofgren said. “Morgan is committed to an ethics committee that is effective and accountable to both the House and the public. Now, her additional investigative experience gained during her time at DOJ’s office of inspector general well positions Morgan to be an invaluable part of the committee’s staff leadership.”

Bonner said the panel was “fortunate” to have Kim in this “important” role.

“Her impressive credentials and years of investigative experience at both the Justice Department and previously with the House ethics committee will greatly benefit the committee and the House.”

During her first stint with the panel, Kim distinguished herself as a “highly skilled and talented investigator by serving as the lead investigator in the House page matter and other sensitive matters,” the release said.

She previously served as a federal prosecutor in the white-collar crimes section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern District of Florida, where she successfully prosecuted high-profile fraud, public corruption and organized crime cases. Early in her career she practiced in the white-collar group at a “national law firm” and clerked for Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp. She graduated from George Mason School of Law, where she served on the editorial board of the law review, according to the release.

The panel did not put out a release when it hired Sovereign, but a program for a 1999 conference of the Association of Corporate Counsel details the Stanford Law graduate’s prior experience, including a stint as assistant counsel with the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), where she investigated allegations of attorney misconduct. It also noted that she began her career as a clerk for then-Judge Kenneth Starr when he served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Starr went on to become the independent counsel who investigated President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which led to Clinton’s impeachment. The OPR is the same office that is wrapping up its investigation of the prosecutorial misconduct alleged in the Stevens case.

At the time of the conference, Sovereign was one of two in-house attorneys for the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), a national oil spill and emergency response company headquartered in Herndon, Va.

She also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated at 11:53 a.m.

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