In a move widely expected by many Capitol Hill observers, the House Ethics Committee announced this week its plan to hold trials for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) after the November Congressional midterm elections. The new schedule is likely to draw sharp criticism from Republicans, who demanded the “hearings” before the 111th Congress went into what is called a concluding “lame duck” session before the start of the 112th Congress in January 2011.
Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) was markedly blunt in a recent statement, acknowledging differences on scheduling between her and Republican Committee Members in recent weeks. “The Committee’s rules vest the Chair with the authority to set the schedule for hearings, but at the request of minority members of the Committee I had agreed to work together to establish schedules,” said Lufgren. “Last week’s unprecedented statement by the minority members of the Committee, in contrast to their prior requests and ongoing discussions, called upon the Chair to unilaterally establish the schedule, as the Committee rules allow.”
The hearings would be held before an eight-member subcommittee or adjudicatory panel of peers who could, potentially, dismiss some or all of the charges involving the two ranking Congressional Black Caucus Members. Should the panel find any wrongdoing during the hearings or the “trial phase” there will be a subsequent “sanctions hearing” to determine the level of sanctions. Recommendations can be made for sanctions to the full House, which could vote on whether to dismiss or punish Rangel and Waters.
Investigators allege that Waters aggressively steered TARP federal bailout funds to minority-owned OneUnited Bank while her husband owned shares in it. However, the Congresswoman vehemently denies that charge and looks forward to a trial to clear her name. She asserts that there is a larger issue at stake concerning lack of regulatory representation for minority-controlled community banks and that they have no advocates in government compared to larger banks that helped trigger the current financial crisis.
Rangel, fresh from a primary win in his Harlem, New York Congressional district, is being charged with 13 counts of wrongdoing, including allegations of financial fraud and using his office to influence corporate contributions for a City University of New York center being built in his honor.
Waters was swift in her response to the Committee Chair’s decision. “After an investigation that has lasted over a year, I am eager to have the opportunity to clear my name,” said Waters. “I would have liked for this matter to be resolved before the election in November, and have repeatedly called for a hearing to be scheduled as soon as possible.”
Many observers and Hill insiders had predicted the trials would take place after the elections due to Democratic leadership worries over the potential political liabilities heading into November. Some Members, including Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), have openly predicted that both Waters and Rangel will be absolved.
“Based on my knowledge, there is no real allegation of corruption involving Rangel,” said Fattah, acknowledging Rangel’s use of Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for the University think tank was ill-advised. “Waters will be okay. But, she won’t agree to a slap on the wrist.”
Government ethics expert and University of Baltimore professor Joshua Kassner posed a different take on the trials, arguing that “in a democracy there is something odd about a body comprised of representatives from other places deciding whether your representative should be punished,” in email comments to Politic365.com.
“It is those who the Congressperson represents that should ultimately decide his or her fate,” observed Kassner. “If your representative’s actions harmed others outside your community then it would seem that the [other] representatives have an obligation to punish the wrongdoer. Complicated stuff.”