House Ethics Committee delays trial of Rep. Maxine Waters

The House Ethics Committee on Friday indefinitely put off a trial on misconduct charges against Rep. Maxine Waters, a delay that the Los Angeles Democrat said underscores the weak case against her.

"After beginning its investigation more than a year ago, working to prepare a case for months and realizing it cannot prove wrongdoing, they have resorted to a delay," said Waters, a South Los Angeles political fixture who won election to the state Assembly in 1976 and to Congress in 1990.

"If this evidence is so damning, the committee should present its case before the public.... Apparently the committee now recognizes, as I have maintained, that there was no benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced, and there is no case."

Waters, a high-ranking member of the House committee that oversees banking, is accused of intervening improperly on behalf of OneUnited bank, on whose board her husband served and in which he owned stock. Three months after she called then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson during the financial crisis to set up a September 2008 meeting between his staff and representatives of minority-owned banks, OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout funds.

Waters, 72, a prominent black congresswoman, has defended her actions, saying they were in keeping with her work to aid minority-owned businesses. She has said that she did not receive any financial benefit.

The panel delayed Waters' trial a day after it recommended that Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) be censured in an unrelated case.

The committee leaders said the Waters trial, which had been scheduled to begin Nov. 29, was being sent back to an investigative subcommittee because of "materials discovered that may have had an effect" on the initial inquiry.

Though the panel declined to discuss the new information, committee attorneys found a "new piece of evidence" while preparing a witness for the trial -- a September 2008 e-mail between Waters' chief of staff and a House Financial Services Committee staffer discussing legislation.

Waters said in a statement that the document "doesn't provide any new significant information" but rather shows that "my office was working to ensure that the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act assisted small and minority institutions." She said it "does not reflect any action on behalf of any specific company."

"As the highest ranking African American and woman on the Financial Services Committee, my staff and I did what we said we did and what we have always done, which is provide a voice in the process for those who lack it," she said.

Craig Holman of the government monitoring group Public Citizen called the delay troubling.

"The adjudicatory panel conducted a full investigation and had access a month ago to the document that is now being used to delay the trial," he said. "It seems unlikely that the delay is because of 'new evidence' and far more likely the delay is due to a fatigued Ethics Committee."

Kenneth Gross, a Washington ethics lawyer, said, "Generally, when an investigator says they're looking at new and additional information … it's not good news for the one who's being investigated. But in some instances, it could actually be helpful."

Waters took a shot at Republican committee members, noting that "before the elections," they felt "so strongly" about moving ahead with a trial that they took the rare step of publicly complaining about the delay. The committee is evenly divided between members of both parties.

In preparation of Waters' defense, her chief of staff and grandson, Mikael Moore, monitored the Rangel proceedings. Unlike Rangel, Waters has established a legal defense fund and hired a former House counsel as her lawyer.

During the hearing process, an eight-member panel of lawmakers holds an adjudicatory hearing. If they find any allegations proved by "clear and convincing evidence," it is up to the 10-member Ethics Committee to recommend a punishment, such as a reprimand, censure or expulsion, all of which require the approval of the full House, which will be controlled by Republicans next year.

"The credibility of the House is reflected not only by members accused of improper action, but also is reflected by the members who sit in judgment," Waters said.

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