The House Ethics committee has cleared Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, of any wrongdoing in a 3-year-old, conflict-of-interest case involving her work on behalf of minority-owned banks during the height of the economic crisis even though her husband had a financial stake in one of them.
The finding exonerates Mrs. Waters, but the ethics panel is still weighing disciplinary action against her grandson, Mikael Moore, who serves as her chief of staff. The case has lingered for years after allegations of prosecutorial misconduct within the Ethics Committee surfaced and delayed an initial public trial scheduled for the fall of 2010. The panel last year took the unusual step of hiring an outside counsel to review the allegations that the panel had mishandled the case against Mrs. Waters and then weigh the evidence against her and Mr. Moore.
The stakes were incredibly high for Mrs. Waters, who will be the highest-ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee next year after Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts retires. If the committee had found her guilty of any ethics violations, that could have jeopardized her ranking member status.
During a rare public hearing Friday, members of the committee said they agreed with the findings of an outside counsel hired to examine the case against her as well as the troubling context of the committee's handling of the investigation. The attorney, Bill Martin, found that Mrs. Waters thought she was initially acting on behalf of all minority-owned banks, not just on behalf of OneUnited Bank of Boston, in which her husband held stock and previously had served on the board of directors.
"We are prepared to accept that finding after this public hearing," Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the acting chairman of the Ethics Committee, said Friday.
When Mrs. Waters discovered OneUnited's prominent role in requesting bailout assistance from the Treasury Department, she informed Mr. Frank, who was serving as chairman of the Financial Services Committee at the time, and handed the issue off to him, Mr. Martin found.
In the fall of 2010, public trial scheduled for Mrs. Waters was abruptly cancelled after the staff director of the Ethics Committee announced the discovery of new evidence in the case. That staff director ultimately resigned, but not before placing two staff attorneys to the committee on administrative leave amid allegations that they leaked information about the probe to Republican members of the committee.
On advice of Mr. Martin, all members of the committee dealing with the case recused themselves and House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, appointed a new panel in 2011 to evaluate evidence in the case and Mr. Martin's findings.
Although Mr. Martin found some merit to Mrs. Waters' complaints, he ultimately determined that the leaks did not violate her due process rights or bias the case against her because the Ethics Committee did not operate under the same rules as a court of law.
Friday's final findings clearing Mrs. Waters is a victory for the fiery California Democrat who had aggressively fought the charges for three years and repeatedly sought a public hearing like the one taking place Friday.
But Mrs. Waters, seated with her husband Sid Williams, was still forced to watch the committee continue to weigh allegations against Mr. Moore, her grandson and chief of staff, who continued to assert his innocence in violating House ethics rules in his work on behalf of minority-owned banks, including OneUnited.
Even though Mrs. Waters instructed him not to work on behalf of OneUnited, Mr. Moore, in detailed lawyerly fashion, refuted the allegations against him on Friday, insisting the committee had not established the timeline of when Mrs. Waters' instructed him not to work on OneUnited issues, so it could not determine whether two emails he sent to Financial Services committee aides advocating for OneUnited violated her instructions and created a improper conflict-of-interest for the office he represents.
Ethics Committee members repeatedly questioned Mr. Moore Friday morning, arguing that several of his previous statements in the case "strained credibility," according to Mr. Martin, Mr. Goodlatte and other lawmakers on the panel. The acting ethics committee will weigh Mr. Moore's arguments and will issue their final conclusion at a later date. The committee is considering issuing Mr. Moore a letter of reproval, the lightest disciplinary action at its disposal.
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