WASHINGTON (AP) — The substitute ethics panel that investigated Rep. Maxine Waters, a senior Democrat, issued a stinging rebuke of the permanent House Ethics Committee Tuesday with a declaration that its members need to step aside from partisanship when judging member conduct.
It was an extraordinary statement from the temporary panel, which took over the Waters case after partisan bickering among the members of the permanent committee caused all five Republicans and the ranking Democrat to step aside last February. Four Democrats from the permanent panel remained in the case.
The ethics committee has five members from each party, a composition designed to ensure bipartisan cooperation in policing House members and their staffs to ensure they follow internal standards of conduct. The temporary panel, brought in to rescue the investigation, made clear in a series of nine recommendations that the cooperation didn’t happen in the Waters case.
The temporary panel said in its rebuke that the ethics committee’s mission “calls upon members to step out of their partisan framework….” It called for committee members to “constantly evaluate their actions … to ensure that they are living up to the highest standards of this committee.”
The substitutes had already made clear last week their findings in the case of Waters, D-Calif., the second ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, who could head the panel if Democrats win back the House.
Acting chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and the top acting Democrat, John Yarmuth of Kentucky, said in a statement that the panel concluded in a 10-0 vote that there was no “clear and convincing” evidence that Waters tried to steer federal bailout money to a bank where her husband is an investor.
The temporary panel also determined unanimously that while Waters undertook efforts to avoid a conflict of interest, her chief of staff and grandson, Mikael Moore, tried to assist minority-owned OneUnited Bank despite his boss’ instruction not to do so because of her husband’s investment in the bank. The committee sent Moore a letter admonishing his conduct.
The substitute committee followed the recommendations of Billy Martin, an outside counsel who had to be hired to first investigate the original committee members and then the actions of Waters and her chief of staff. He found the original committee members did not violate House rules.
The turmoil in the committee began in 2010, when former Democratic ethics chairman Zoe Lofgren of California — and the chief counsel she appointed — accused two committee lawyers of communicating their investigative findings only to Republican committee members. Lofgren suspended both lawyers.
When Republicans won control of the House in 2010, and the new Congress took over, Lofgren and the four remaining Democrats then on the committee resigned and all five Republicans remained.
The new Republican chairman, Jo Bonner of Alabama, invited the two staff members back but they declined the offer. Internal documents later surfaced showing that partisanship had been affecting the work of the committee.
Goodlatte and Yarmuth said in their statement that the committee must “be sensitive to appearances that may be created if only particular staff members are routinely relied upon by members of a particular party.” Such actions breed distrust that “should raise a red flag” among committee members, the statement said.
The statement said the former chief counsel hired by Lofgren, Blake Chisam, had a partisan background, and recommended that the panel “avoid hiring professional staff who have previously served as partisan staff.”
The substitutes also lectured both the committee and the House, saying new rules are needed when potential conflicts of interest arise for lawmakers and their staffs.
The lawmaker should inform all of his or her staff members, as well as the entity involved, of the member’s decision to step aside from any further involvement — even if the entity is a constituent, the statement said. It added that the House should adopt policies or rules requiring a congressman to immediately notify staff of any financial or other conflicts with constituents.
The temporary panel also took aim at Waters’ decision to hire her grandson as chief of staff, saying that “employer-employee relationships with grandchildren can be just as fraught with risk as other familial relationships in the workplace.”
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