Waters puts process on trial

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is capitalizing on ethics committee blunders to put the entire ethics process on trial and cast serious doubt about the case against her.

Waters’s tactic stands in stark contrast to the way Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) handled the case against him. Waters has been on offense since an investigative subcommittee charged her with three ethics violations in July.

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Rangel, meanwhile, played a flat-footed defense during the more than two years that ethics allegations swirled around him. He often appeared scattered, switching arguments from wanting a speedy trial to calling for a delay, from admitting to the mistakes and apologizing for them to accusing the panel and the press of a witch-hunt. He was censured by the House last week.

Waters’s clear and aggressive media strategy seems to be paying off for the 10-term lawmaker.

She continued that strategy on Tuesday. As of press time, she planned to offer a privileged resolution on the House floor that would direct Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to appoint a bipartisan task force to investigate the ethics committee’s decision to suspend two attorneys on the panel’s case against her the same day the panel announced an indefinite delay of her public trial. A vote on the proposal is expected as early as Wednesday.

It’s the latest salvo Waters has fired at the committee as she continues her vigorous, well-coordinated defense against ethics charges stemming from a fall 2008 meeting she helped set up between Treasury officials and OneUnited bank. The bank ended up receiving $12 million in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds. Waters’s husband owns hundreds of thousands of dollars in OneUnited stock and previously served on its board.

Waters argued she was acting on behalf of minority-owned banks as a whole, not just OneUnited. She claims the ethics panel has repeatedly failed to show that she influenced anyone or gained any benefit for her actions.

Watchdog groups supported her resolution.

“Rep. Waters has every reason to be suspicious,” said Public Citizens’s Craig Holman. “The timing of the firings came at the same time of the delay of the trial itself and immediately raises questions about prosecutorial misconduct. If the suspensions are somehow related to the Waters investigation, it clearly undermines the case against her.”

Lawmakers and the public have a recent reminder of the consequences of prosecutorial misconduct in the case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

A jury convicted him in October 2008 of making false statements for his failure to list certain items on his financial disclosure forms. But, in April 2009, during the appeals process, Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one The Memo: Democrats may rue pursuit of Bannon Ben Affleck, Tracee Ellis Ross join anti-gerrymandering fundraiser with Clinton, Holder MORE 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 prosecutors’ actions in the Stevens case, and the attorneys were put on leave.

At the same time, the ethics committee has no obligation to operate under the same rules of criminal procedure and has never given any indication that it does so even loosely.

“This is the House of Representatives — they can do whatever they want to. That’s what the Constitution says,” said Jan Baran, a Republican ethics attorney.

Still, Baran said he has never seen anything likethe unexplained attorney suspensions.

“I don’t know what to make of it … it doesn’t seem to be provided for in the rules of the committee, and the lack of information makes this very perplexing.”

If Waters’s resolution passes, the task force would make recommendations “to restore public confidence in the ethics process, including disciplining both staff and members where needed,” according to a draft copy. The task force also would report its findings and recommendations to the House next year.

In the resolution, Waters accuses the ethics committee of violating her due-process rights and the rules of the committee by delaying her trial, originally scheduled for Nov. 29.

It also argues the delay and action against the attorneys “have subjected the committee to public ridicule, produced contempt for the ethics process, created the public perception that the committee’s purpose was to unjustly impugn the integrity of a member of the House and weakened the ability of the committee to properly conduct its investigative duties, all of which has brought discredit to the House.”

Ethics committee chief counsel and staff director Blake Chisam wanted to fire Morgan Kim, the committee’s deputy chief counsel, and Stacy Sovereign, another ethics lawyer, on Nov. 19, but was barred from doing so under panel rules. Instead, they were placed on indefinite leave.

Kim was the lead attorney in the Waters trial, which the committee said was delayed because the panel had decided to reopen the investigation after receiving new evidence. It is unclear whether that evidence helps or hurts Waters’s case.

Waters’s resolution is similar to one Pelosi offered in March 2005 after Republicans removed then-Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the ethics panel, as well as two other GOP members and committee staffers, after the panel admonished then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for several activities they said brought discredit to the House.

In that resolution, Pelosi said the actions taken against the ethics committee subjected it to “public ridicule, produced contempt for the ethics process, created the public perception that their purpose was to protect a member of the House and weakened the ability of the committee to adequately obtain information and properly conduct its investigative duties, all of which has brought discredit to the House.”

That resolution also called for the formation of a bipartisan task force to make recommendations to restore public confidence in the ethics process and report its findings to the House.