House ethics panel taps lawyer to probe partisanship, Waters

Outside counsel will look into the handling of the Maxine Waters case, which was delayed after internal conflicts. Outside counsel will look into the handling of the Maxine Waters case, which was delayed after internal conflicts.
By Larry Margasak
Associated Press / July 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON - The House Ethics Committee named an outside counsel yesterday to investigate its own partisanship, as well as allegations against Representative Maxine Waters, a senior Democrat who helps oversee the financial services industry.

In an extraordinary announcement acknowledging deep internal conflicts, the committee said Washington attorney Billy Martin’s first task will be to investigate how the committee handled the Waters case. Internal documents, obtained by the Associated Press over the past several months, show that two committee attorneys last year communicated solely with Republicans about Waters and other cases.

The case of Waters, a congresswoman for California, is focused on whether she tried to aid a troubled Boston-based bank where her husband owns stock. The investigation has been in limbo for eight months because the two lawyers and the former chief counsel left the ethics committee. All five Democrats from last year quit the committee over the communications with Republicans, forcing the panel to start over with new lawmakers and staff.

Waters this week demanded that the case be dismissed on grounds that partisanship has made it impossible to give her a fair proceeding. The committee has five members from each party and its investigative staff is supposed to be nonpartisan. The five Republicans from last year remained on the committee.

The internal documents showed that the committee’s second-ranking attorney, C. Morgan Kim, communicated frequently about the Waters case with Representative Jo Bonner, an Alabama Republican, who currently is the committee chairman.

Kim and another attorney, Stacy Sovereign, were suspended last year by the then-chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. She acted after learning of their memos and e-mails to Republicans. Neither attorney is currently employed by the committee, and they have denied any misconduct.

The case partly focused on a meeting Waters requested between Treasury Department officials and representatives of an association representing minority-owned banks, including Boston-based OneUnited. The committee also investigated bailout legislation that would have helped the bank, where Waters’s husband, Sidney Williams, owns stock that would have been worthless if the bank failed.

Waters has contended that her efforts were to help all troubled minority-owned banks.

OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout money in December 2008, but Treasury Department officials have told House investigators that Waters was not involved in that decision.

The committee said Martin’s first task will be review the committee’s internal conflicts and allow Waters to clarify her concerns about the case.

Martin would then present his findings to the committee, which would decide whether to proceed in the case.