When last we commented about ethics allegations against Rep. Maxine Waters, the Democratic congresswoman from South L.A. was unsuccessfully demanding that the House Ethics Committee quit delaying and put her on trial. Almost four months and an election later, that trial still hasn't taken place and the investigation has become a partisan morass. The allegations against Waters are sufficiently serious that the committee should reinvestigate the case, but in a way that treats her fairly and encourages public confidence by moving forward in a timely manner.
The accusation against Waters is that she arranged a meeting in 2008 between Treasury Department officials and the National Bankers Assn., which represents minority-owned banks. But the only bank with representatives at the meeting was One- United Bank, on whose board Waters' husband had served and in which he owned thousands of shares of stock. OneUnited later received $12 million in government bailout money. Waters has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that her concern was for minority-owned banks in general.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics referred the Waters case to the Ethics Committee in August 2009. An investigative subcommittee of the panel concluded last June that there was substantial reason to believe she violated the Code of Ethics for Government Service, as well as a requirement that members "behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House." She also was accused of violating the "spirit" of a rule against deriving compensation from an official act. Waters' "adjudicatory" trial by the committee was scheduled for Nov. 29 but was postponed, supposedly because of new evidence.
The Waters investigation hasn't progressed in the new Congress, and political fallout from last year's investigation has contaminated the effort to revive it. The partisan controversy focuses on two committee lawyers who worked on the case and were suspended by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), the former chairwoman of the committee, for undisclosed reasons. Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the new chairman, reinstated the lawyers, though they have left the panel for other jobs. It doesn't matter whether the attorneys were partisan in their investigation or appropriately zealous and unfairly suspended. The result was the same: a cloud of partisanship over the case.
The glacial pace of this investigation is doubtless frustrating for Waters, and its apparent politicization doesn't reflect well on the committee. But those are not reasons to abandon the process. The panel should retain a special counsel to conduct a new investigation free of any suspicion of partisanship. The committee, which has several new members, should then move expeditiously to resolve the matter.