Mystery Surrounding House Ethics Committee Attorneys Continues

The House Ethics Committee attorneys accused of bungling the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) three months ago were still on the House payroll as of Jan. 31, as TPM reported late last week, and there are new questions about how they are managing to stick around.

House Ethics Committee rules clearly require the panel to approve all staffers at the beginning of each Congress.

“All staff members shall be appointed by an affirmative vote of a majority of the members of the Committee,” the rules state.

The vote shall occur at the first Committee of each Congress, according to the rules, and “as necessary” during the Congress.Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), who chairs the Ethics Committee, entered the committee’s approved rules into the Congressional Record Feb. 15 — that move would at least suggest that the panel had its first meeting and approved all the staffers.

So did at least one Democrat cross the aisle to approve the appointment of Morgan Kim, the deputy chief counsel who served as the lead attorney on the Waters’ case, and Stacy Sovereign, who assisted on the case? The ethics panels are the only committees in Congress that are evenly divided so it would appear to be the case.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) isn’t saying. A Sanchez spokesman declined to comment on the matter, citing Ethics Committee confidentiality rules.

Bonner’s office did not immediately return a request for comment, and last week his spokesman said no one from the panel is authorized to speak to the press, but he would forward my inquiries to the committee “as they organize.”

Blake Chisam, the previous chief counsel, resigned late last year after a rocky tenure for the panel and a series of partisan skirmishes culminating in his attempts 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.