Conflicted Out? Bonner To Control $500K For Waters Special Prosecutor

Watchdogs are busy extolling the Ethics Committee decision earlier Wednesday to hire an outside counsel to investigate the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), as well as allegations that its own staff and members engaged in a pattern of prosecutorial abuse.

But a review of the special prosecutor’s contract, obtained by TPM, raises new conflict-of-interest questions for the beleaguered ethics panel.The contract between the panel and Billy Martin, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, authorizes a payment of at least $50,000 and a maximum of $500,000 and gives Martin a deadline of Jan. 2, 2012 to finish his review. But it also says Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner (R-AL) can cancel the contract at anytime.

That would all seem quite normal, except of course, part of Martin’s job is to investigate Bonner and other Republicans’ alleged role in the prosecutorial abuse and unprofessional behavior involved in the Waters’ case.

“It’s a surprise that Bonner alone gets to terminate it,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “I would say that that seems surprising given that part of the investigation has to be of Bonner himself. “I just don’t think you can have the outside counsel investigating the committee reporting to the committee. Why wouldn’t you want to bury a bad report upon yourself?”

Sloan said she expects Democrats on the panel to raise cain if Bonner tried to bury a report about himself or fire a special prosecutor and that would create enough political pressure for him not to act unilaterally. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), the ranking member of the panel, signed the contract and she is never shy about expressing her views.

More broadly, Sloan commended the panel for hiring the special prosecutor but believes that Bonner and the Ethics Committee shouldn’t be involved at all — that the special prosecutor should submit his findings to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for a determination.

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.

Follow this reporter on Twitter: @susancrabtree

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