The House prolonged its three-year ethics investigation of one California Democrat while officially voting to reprimand and fine another.
Lawmakers hope to wrap up the ethics case against Rep. Maxine Waters by the end of the year. The Ethics Committee on Thursday announced a unanimous decision to extend the contract for Billy Martin, the outside counsel overseeing the case against Mrs. Waters, for another six months.
"Mr. Martin will continue to work closely with the committee as it attempts to complete this matter," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who serves as the acting chairman of the ethics panel investigating Mrs. Waters, and Rep. John A. Yarmuth, the ranking Democrat from Kentucky.
"We are fully committed to resolving this matter as early in the remainder of this Congress as is possible to do in a thorough, fair an deliberate manner," they added, noting that Mr. Martin's contract is expected to cost $500,000 and has a termination date at the end of this Congress.
The case against Mrs. Waters, which focuses on whether she tried to steer federal bailout funds to a minority-owned bank where her husband was a shareholder, has continued for years partly because she fought the charges and partly because the ethics panel became mired in allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and political maneuvering.
The latest delay in resolving the case could hurt Mrs. Waters' chances of taking over the ranking member spot on the House Financial Services Committee, where she would be poised to become chairwoman if Democrats win back control of the House in the next Congress.
With an ethics cloud still hovering over her, Mrs. Waters may have a difficult time convincing colleagues to give her the nod.
The panel delayed Mrs. Waters' public trial in the fall of 2010 and hired Mr. Martin to sort it all out when details about internal turmoil over the case leaked out.
In early June, the Ethics Committee said Mr. Martin had concluded that Mrs. Waters' due process rights had not been violated and the case would proceed.
Even though he found that several of her complaints had merit, Mr. Martin said the accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and due-process violations either did not apply to the House Ethics Committee, which is not subject to the same constitutional protections that apply to the U.S. legal system, or did not bias the case against her.
Mr. Martin was hired in July 2011 on a six-month contract after news leaked the previous fall that then-Ethics Committee Chairman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, had tried to fire at least two of the top professional staffers on the investigation.
Also on Thursday, the House voted to reprimand Rep. Laura Richardson for pressuring her office staff to help out on her political campaigns and trying to cover up the violations by coaching the staffers to lie to investigators.
In addition to the reprimand, Ms. Richardson faces a $10,000 fine.
"She did a disservice to the hardworking taxpayers of this country," said Rep. Jo Bonner, chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
In a speech to the House Ms. Richardson acknowledged staffers from her congressional office worked on her campaigns and said some of them may have felt compelled to do so, but she said she never intended that.
"What I want to make emphatically clear and what I want to emphasize — that I've never taken or never threatened any action against any staffer who did not volunteer to work on my campaign," the California Democrat said.
Mr. Bonner, though, said staffers told the committee they felt pressure. He said investigators heard "desperate, sometimes emotional" pleas from the congresswoman's staff to intervene.
The committee issued an official report that is damning in its conclusions, saying the congresswoman's version of events was at odds with that told by her staffers, and ethics investigators clearly believed the staffers.
It's not illegal for congressional staffers to volunteer to work for their boss's political campaigns, but they are not supposed to do so on official time, and they cannot be pushed to do so.
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