Ethics Showdown Brewing Over Suspended Attorneys

March 8, 2011 2:28 p.m.

A showdown is brewing between House Republicans and Democrats on the Ethics Committee over whether to reinstate two attorneys accused of bungling the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) three months ago.

The two lawyers, Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign, were still on the House payroll as of Jan. 31, as TPM reported in late February, and committee rules require the panel to approve all the staffers at the beginning of each Congress. A source spotted Kim in the Capitol complex Tuesday, adding to the intrigue.The Ethics Committee is the only panel in the House that is evenly divided by party so one Democrat would have to cross the aisle and give the nod for the two attorneys to remain on staff. Since the committee already had its first meeting, TPM questioned the committee’s ranking member, Linda Sanchez (D-CA), about whether she had voted in favor of the attorneys sticking around.

At the time, Sanchez was keeping mum. Her spokesman declined to comment on several of TPM’s inquiries on the subject.

But knowledgeable sources tell TPM that the ethics panel has yet to vote on the full staff list so Sanchez has not been forced to take a side on the nettlesome question of keeping or letting the two attorneys go. Just how deeply Sanchez will dig her heels in on the issue has yet to be seen.

The pair would no doubt file a wrongful termination suit if they were fired. Democrats, however, have no reason to simply agree to keep them on board, especially because their suspension was fraught with partisan tensions, and Democrats on the panel last year accused them of pushing the case against Waters too hard.

Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner’s (R-AL) personal spokesman has said no one from the panel is authorized to speak to the press, but he would forward TPM’s inquiries to the committee “as they organize.”

Blake Chisam, the former chief counsel who resigned late last year after a rocky tenure for the panel, attempted to fire Kim and Sovereign a week before Waters’ public trial, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 29.

Apparently, Kim and Sovereign discovered a new piece of critical evidence just one week before the trial, so the Ethics Committee was forced to indefinitely delay it. But the two attorneys, both of whom had clerked for Republican judges, also had repeatedly crossed swords with Chisam over just how hard to push the case against Waters.

Bonner stepped in and disagreed with Chisam’s push to fire Kim and Sovereign, and the pair instead were placed on indefinite administrative leave. The focus now is on whether Bonner, as the new chairman, will reinstate the attorneys or let them go. He may agree with their more hard-charging approach on the Waters’ case and want to keep them around to expand it.

Waters is accused of intervening on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband owns stock and on whose board he’d previously sat. She has mounted a vigorous, detailed defense, arguing she was acting on behalf of all minority-owned banks, as she has done for other minority interests for years, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight it through a legal defense fund.

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