House ethics chief counsel has resigned

The staff director and chief counsel for the House ethics committee tendered his resignation before the election. 

Blake Chisam, who ethics committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) handpicked to help run the committee at the beginning of the 111th Congress, will be departing imminently, according to two House aides. 

Chisam’s departure is spurring speculation from lawmakers that Lofgren is trying to leave the committee as well.

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Lofgren’s office did not return a request for comment.

Chisam’s departure follows the resignation of Office of Congressional Ethics staff director and chief counsel Leo Wise, and continues a rocky period for House ethics.  

In the last month alone, the panel delayed a public trial for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and placed the lead attorneys on the case on an indefinite leave of absence without explanation. 

Those moves followed a difficult summer for the committee as the panel publicly sparred with Waters and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who fought multiple charges and eventually was censured by the full House after a short-lived public trial. 

The messy public spectacles involving Waters and Rangel played out in the final months of a difficult and ultimately devastating campaign for Democrats.

Rep. G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldTop five Supreme Court cases to watch Black Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP GOP leadership critic finds way around alleged retribution MORE (D-N.C.), a member of the panel, Wednesday called on the GOP and Democratic leaders to appoint brand new members on both sides of the aisle to the panel in order to restore its integrity.

“We need a complete reconstitution of the committee from top to bottom in order to restore confidence in the committee,” he told The Hill.

He also said he no longer wants to serve on the committee, an assignment most members try to avoid because it involves the thorny task of policing their peers.

The ethics committee operates in secrecy, and its members rarely, if ever, openly criticize its work or discuss internal matters. Butterfield’s comments suggest even panel members are uneasy about the controversies surrounding its work over the last few years.

During Rangel’s brief public trial, Butterfield complained that the panel was moving forward with the proceedings even though Rangel lacked an attorney at the time. Other members of the panel defeated Butterfield’s motion to delay the trial.

Waters has repeatedly called on the panel to offer a public explanation for its decision to suspend deputy chief counsel Morgan Kim and attorney Stacey Sovereign, and threatened to force an investigation into the matter. With little time left on the legislative calendar, Waters this week decided to drop the effort and not force a vote on a resolution she offered that would have created a task force to look into the suspensions. 

Walters is still pushing for an explanation, however.

“Although little time remains for a formal resolution, it remains important that the committee share the circumstances surrounding the firings of the two attorneys,” said a source close to Waters. “Last week, Rep. Waters asked the committee to release a bipartisan statement explaining its actions, and that is still the right thing for the committee to do.”

An investigative subcommittee charged Waters with three counts of violating House ethics rules related to her efforts to convene a meeting in October 2008 between Federal Reserve officials and OneUnited bank, where her husband owns stock and previously served on its board. OneUnited later received $12 million in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds.

When the ethics committee delayed Waters’s trial, it said only that it had discovered new evidence. The new evidence technically voided the statement of alleged violating (SAV), a document akin to an indictment in ethics committee terms. Any extension of the case against her into the new Congress would likely involve reconvening the investigative subcommittee that first looked into the matter and further investigation of the new evidence.

Waters has already argued that the ethics committee was violating her rights for due process by delaying the trial, and she would undoubtedly denounce any attempt to re-investigate the case against her.

The ethics committee has several other unresolved cases that will spill into the new Congress, including a case scrutinizing the fundraising practices of Reps. Tom Price (R-Texas), John Campbell (R-Calif.) and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). The ethics panel on Wednesday announced an extension of that case and said it would announce how it will proceed on or before Jan. 29.

If incoming Speaker John BoehnerJohn Boehner3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare MORE (R-Ohio) decides to clean house and name new members to the panel, he could decide to retain the existing investigative subcommittees that looked into the allegations against Waters and other separate matters. 

The House ethics committee chose to keep the same investigative committee intact that first had looked into the charges against Rangel from one Congress to another, even though some of the members on the investigative team no longer were serving on the ethics committee.


—This story was updated at 9:05 p.m.