The House Ethics Committee has hired a special prosecutor to handle the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), a two-year investigation that has become mired in allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and partisan maneuvering.
The panel announced the hire of Billy Martin, a partner at the Washington office of Dorsey & Whitney, in a lengthy statement Wednesday, which came in the wake of an unprecedented document leak airing the committee’s dirty laundry in excruciating detail. It was a unanimous decision, the panel said.
The scores of Ethics Committee e-mails and memos, reported by Politico Monday with links to the documents, paint a picture of a committee consumed by partisan dysfunction and accusations of professional misconduct surrounding Waters’ case.“The Committee’s decision reflects the high priority of this unique matter and the need to resolve it with the upmost care, diligence, and integrity,” the panel said in a statement. “The Committee is firmly and unanimously resolved to protect the rights of Representative Waters and all respondents, as well as the responsibilities of the Committee on Ethics to the House community at large.”
Martin would not limit his outside investigation to the Waters case, but would also thoroughly review the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and improper partisan influence on the panel, which could implicate the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), who has been accused of pushing the case against Waters for partisan reasons and improperly communicating with staff assigned to the case while he was the ranking member of the panel last year.
“Serious allegations have been made about the Committee’s own conduct by Representative Waters and others,” the panel acknowledged in its statement. “The Committee has not taken these allegations lightly. The entire membership of the Committee on Ethics believes that its work must always comport with the highest standards of integrity.”
The panel has directed Martin to “thoroughly review” the allegations against committee members and staff as his first task, including providing Waters an additional opportunity to clarify her concerns to the Martin and the committee. After investigating the charges and countercharges, Martin will report his findings to the Committee, which will decide whether to continue to press the charges against Waters or dismiss them, the Ethics Committee said in its statement.
Ethics watchdogs have repeatedly told TPM that a special prosecutor is the only viable solution for handling the Waters case and the turmoil surrounding it, but others have argued that reinvestigating the case would unfairly burden Waters, who has set up a legal defense fund to help pay legal bills associated with the charges.
Last summer, the ethics panel charged Waters with three ethics violations for intervening on behalf of a minority-owned bank in its request for bailout funds in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. Her husband owned more than $350,000 worth of stock in the bank at the time. Waters has denied any wrongdoing, arguing that she has consistently advocated for minority banks throughout her 18 years in Congress.
In response to the appointment of a special prosecutor, Waters is expected to escalate her intense battle with the ethics committee, which she has waged throughout the more than two-year investigation.
Reacting to Martin’s appointment, Waters emphasized the panel’s dysfunction and its unprecedented decision to have the special prosecutor investigate the multiple allegations of prosecutorial abuse and violations of the panel’s rules.
“For the first time in the history of the ethics committee, it has initiated an inquiry into its own misconduct and taken the extraordinary step of hiring an outside counsel to explore the depth and breadth of the committee’s misconduct,” she said in a statement. “Given what’s already in the public domain, it’s hard to imagine that a deeper review into the committee’s conduct would do anything but reveal more troubling information. In the name of transparency, the Counsel’s findings should be made public.
“To be clear, today’s action is a recognition by the committee, that its investigation of me was misguided, flawed and could go no further,” she added. “I am confident that the counsel’s review of the committee’s misconduct will conclude that my rights were violated and further investigation of me is not warranted.”
On Tuesday, her attorney, Stan Brand, said the case was so tainted that the only option the ethics committee had was to dismiss the charges. He even threatened to sue the ethics panel over some of the allegations of unprofessional committee staff behavior.
“The misconduct is of such a fundamentally improper level that it cannot be cured by reliance on any other device, including employment of a special counsel,” Brand wrote in a letter to the panel sent Tuesday. “Simply put, given the foregoing history, this Committee can never conduct an impartial and unbiased inquiry into this matter.”
The Waters case has been stalled since late last year after the two top attorneys handling it were put on administrative leave and eventually resigned. The chief counsel who disciplined the attorneys also headed out the door after a tumultuous year of pursuing the high-profile case against Waters, as well as the string of charges against Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), which eventually led to his censure by the full House.
Ethics watchdogs on Wednesday renewed their call for a special prosecutor to handle the case just hours before the panel made its announcement. They also said the entire ethics process needs to be restructured to hand more authority for policing members behavior over to an independent entity, the Office of Congressional Ethics, a board consisting of former members of Congress that right now can only make recommendations to the full committee for further review.
“Our organizations believe the Ethics Committee’s continued pattern of dysfunction requires House Speaker Boehner and House Democratic Leader Pelosi to establish a process to determine what happened in the House Ethics Committee and what steps are necessary to further strengthen the House ethics enforcement process,” the watchdogs wrote to the panel. “In this context, we believe that the Office of Congressional Ethics has done an outstanding job in carrying out its assigned responsibilities and that OCE’s role in the House ethics enforcement process should be strengthened and expanded.”
The organizations signing the letter include: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.
Previously, several members of the coalition told TPM they thought Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), the chairman of the ethics panel, should step down — at least temporarily — for his role in the ongoing turmoil over Waters’ case.
“I think there needs to be an investigation into the whole matter, including Mr. Bonner’s role and that Mr. Bonner should step aside during the course of that investigation,” Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director told TPM Tuesday. “If Mr. Bonner is found to have broken the committee’s rules, he should be sanctioned by the full House.”
The documents that leaked Monday provide new details regarding Bonner’s role in the alleged bungling of the ethics committee’s case against Waters.
Criticism of Bonner focuses on charges that he improperly communicated with the two attorneys assigned to Waters’ case. According to a memo written by Blake Chisam, the former chief counsel of the panel, to then-Chairwoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Bonner and at least one Bonner aide who did not have the authority to access confidential panel materials received emails and other information from the two attorneys.
The attorneys also allegedly improperly communicated with Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the special panel overseeing the trial of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who later the House censured for a separate string of charges, according to Chisam’s memo. There are strict Ethics Committee rules preventing contact between the staff attorneys assigned to prosecute a case and the lawmakers who serve as the jury weighing the evidence.
“They have engaged in impermissible ex parte communication with Republican staff and members of the committee,” Chisam said the attorneys in a different memo sent to Lofgren in December.
Follow this reporter on Twitter: @susancrabtree