This past week the December lame-duck Congressional session closed with heavy doses of sweaty legislative lifting and partisan wrangling over the fate of everything from deficits to unemployment benefits. But, the climate on Capitol Hill melted into a surreal soup of ethics mayhem, capped by the humiliating censure of longtime Black Harlem politician Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and new developments surfacing in the matter of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
Rangel’s 333-79 censure vote on the House floor marks the first time in 30 years a member of Congress faced such humiliation before their peers. And while a dejected Rangel still has a job and can get back to representing his district, the record will remain unchanged. The dark blot on Rangel’s legacy continues to keep him up late at night.
Waters, in stark contrast, tipped off a frantic week of new disclosures with roundhouse rhetorical kicks at the House Ethics Committee. The Congresswoman had already blasted the secretive body by the previous week’s end for indefinitely delaying her trial originally scheduled for Nov. 29.
And in a carefully orchestrated offensive of appearances, press releases and comments calibrated for maximum impact, a defiant Waters stood outside the hearing room where her trial was scheduled, drawing a small crowd of reporters — right at 9 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 29, the same time she would have faced the committee.
“As you know, my hearing was scheduled for this morning at 9 a.m., and I am here because I am, as I have always been, eager for my opportunity to have my day before the adjudicatory subcommittee,” said Waters, clearly annoyed. “I am disappointed that the committee has chosen not to hold my hearing.
“Since it has been canceled, I, like you, am looking for answers.”
Answers appeared, almost magically, two days later in the form of a breaking news story in The Hill newspaper, a political insider daily covering Capitol Hill. Reporter Susan Crabtree dropped dime on two once highly respected committee lawyers placed on “administrative leave” for mishandling the Waters’ case.
The reprimand happened the same day Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Ranking Republican member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) issued a joint statement delaying Waters trial.
While the committee remains tight-lipped about what exactly happened, Waters wants answers. Chief among them: why did she have to find out about it through media reports?
“Did the Committee’s attorneys withhold exculpatory evidence?” the Congresswoman asked in a statement. “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?”
It’s an unusual twist in a case confusing the most veteran ethics experts. The indefinite delay sparked an understandably furious response from Waters since it signaled the committee’s intent to restart the investigation — thereby pushing the case into the next Congress.
Sources expect that Waters will grow more defiant as the current session grinds to a close, nervous that her trial could take place during a 112th Congress when Republicans are in control of the House.
That would cause considerable problems for the Congresswoman, known to famously battle with GOP House Members over a number of major policy issues. Long vilified by conservatives, some argue Waters’ political enemies could use her trial as an opportunity for payback.
“I would imagine that anything that lacks transparency runs that risk or has that moral hazard attached to it,” argues Joshua Kassner, an ethics expert at the University of Baltimore. Kassner contends that it’s critical for the Committee to exercise more transparency given its public mission.
“Especially in a situation where you have such partisan feeling,” adds Kassner. “It’s open to potential ethics complaints.”
Others note it’s the first time they’ve seen the Committee stop an investigation — then renew it.
For now, the only way Waters can figure it out is through open speculation and heavy reliance on spotty Committee leaks. The Associated Press reported that a recently uncovered e-mail from Waters’ grandson and chief of staff Mikael Moore made no mention of OneUnited Bank, the minority-owned financial institution at the center of ethics charges filed against the Congresswoman.
While the Committee accuses the Congresswoman of scheming to secure Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds for Boston-based OneUnited Bank because her husband owned shares in it, the e-mail makes no mention of the bank. Instead, it shows Waters aggressively advocating for all minority-owned and community banks, frustrated that the Treasury Department appeared to favor larger mainstream banks which helped trigger the current economic crisis.
(A full version of this article by Charles Ellison originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune)