Waters wants answers on why ethics attorneys were placed on leave


Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is calling on the ethics committee to explain why it placed the two attorneys handling her case on administrative leave the same day it delayed her public trial.

“It appears that we now know the real reason for the delay: Something has gone wrong in the ethics process,” she said in a lengthy statement issued late Wednesday afternoon.

She also called into the question the panel’s integrity and argued the investigative process had been compromised.

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“We don’t know the specifics, but we know that the integrity of the committee and its investigative process have been compromised,” she said. “The longer the committee withholds the details of its actions, the more the public’s confidence in the House ethics process is eroded.”

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 action could sound the death knell for the Waters’s case. It no doubt gives her leverage to achieve a reduced penalty if not a dismissal of the case.

Waters’s wasted little time in seizing on the news and said she has long been concerned about the committee’s unsupported conclusions, often contradictory arguments and unfounded negative references.

“It now seems that these concerns were justified, as the committee’s sanctioning of its own attorneys is an acknowledgement of flaws and failures in the Committee’s processes and handling of my case,” she said.

“The committee must reveal immediately the circumstances that prompted its action. Transparency is of the utmost importance at this critical moment.

“As I have consistently maintained during the entire course of this investigation, there was no benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced, and for these reasons, there is no case.

An investigative subcommittee of the ethics panel, lead by Kim, 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. She 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.

Waters also questioned whether the attorneys leaked or spoke to the press without authorization, among other questions.

“Did the committee’s attorneys withhold exculpatory evidence? Leak documents or speak to the press without authorization? Engage in partisan activity? Mislead Members of Congress? Was the disciplinary action justified? What impact does this have on my case?” she asked.

Both Kim and Sovereign had clerked for Republican judges early in their now well-established legal careers. Kim worked for Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp, who President Bush appointed, and she graduated from George Mason School of Law, where she served on the editorial board of the law review, according to ethics committee press release about her hiring.

Sovereign 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 ethics committee declined all comment.

Both Kim and Sovereign worked for internal federal government watchdogs entities charged with investigating the conduct of other attorneys.

Kim first 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.

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.

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 Justice’s OPR is wrapping up its investigations of the prosecutor’s actions in the Stevens case and the attorneys were put on leave.