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House ethics panel hires outside lawyer for Waters case

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The House Ethics Committee has hired outside counsel to review claims by Rep. Maxine Waters that the panel mishandled an investigation into allegations that she improperly tried to obtain a federal bailout for a minority-owned bank where her husband was a stockholder.

Billy Martin, a former federal prosecutor-turned-prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer, was named Wednesday by the committee to conduct "a thorough review" of the "serious allegations" that have been made about its conduct in the case by Mrs. Waters and others.

The California Democrat, who has maintained her innocence, called again for the dismissal of the ethics charges and her lawyer, Stanley M. Brand, said in a letter to the committee that its "misconduct" made it impossible for her to have a fair trial.

"The hiring of an outside counsel will allow for an independent review and a faster resolution than if the committee staff were to handle it alone," according to a statement by Rep. Jo Bonner, Alabama Republican and committee chairman, and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California, the committee's ranking Democrat.

"Serious allegations have been made about the committee's own conduct in this matter by Representative Waters and others," they wrote. "The committee has not taken these allegations lightly."

Mr. Bonner and Mrs. Sanchez said Mr. Martin is expected to report his findings and conclusions about the committee's conduct to the full committee, which will then decide how to proceed and whether to continue its ethics probe of Mrs. Waters.

Mrs. Waters called the decision to hire Mr. Martin "a recognition by the committee that its investigation of me was misguided, flawed and could go no further.

"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," she said, calling for the counsel's findings to be made public.

The committee's investigation has been on hold since November when it postponed the start of a trial on three ethics violations after the discovery of new evidence it said may have had "an effect" on the case. At the same time, two committee lawyers involved in the case were suspended by the then-Chairman Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat.

The ethics committee had charged Mrs. Waters in August with improperly trying to obtain federal bailout money from the Treasury Department for Boston-based OneUnited Bank in which her husband, Sidney Williams, owned stock worth as much as much as $350,000.

The bank eventually received more than $12 million in federal bailout funding.

Mrs. Waters, as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, has said her efforts to get bailout funds were on behalf of a number of minority owned banks - not just OneUnited.

A critic of both the Ethics Committee and Mrs. Waters, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) applauded the appointment of Mr. Martin, saying "any investigation he conducts will be thorough and fair and difficult to quibble with."

Ms. Sloan said she was glad to see that Mr. Martin also was investigating the committee itself, since recent disclosures had suggested the Waters inquiry was "deeply flawed."

"Recent reports paint the committee as nearly decimated by partisanship and pettiness, dramatically undermining confidence in its work," she said.

The committee, with five Democrats and five Republicans, voted unanimously to hire Mr. Martin "after a long, careful, competitive process." He is to complete the work no later than Jan. 2, 2012, according to a copy of the contract filed with the House. The costs are not to exceed $500,000.

Earlier Wednesday, a coalition of reform groups urged the committee to engage an outside counsel to complete the Waters investigation, citing reports indicating severe "partisan dysfunction and accusations of professional misconduct." The coalition's members are CREW, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and the Public Interest Research Groups (U.S. PIRG.)

"Serious questions have been raised in the Waters case about potential violations of House ethics rules. These ethics questions merit a professional investigation and adjudication," the groups wrote.

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