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Democrats Tout Corruption Cleanup as Trials Loom

Behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, Democrats are in full spin mode as they try to minimize the political damage from the spectacle of two potential House ethics trials before the midterm elections.

The latest bombshell landed Monday afternoon, when the House ethics committee announced that Rep. Maxine Waters would face an ethics trial on an unspecified date after an investigative panel found substantial reason to believe the California Democrat violated House rules or other laws. The ethics committee has been exploring Waters’ role in securing $12 million in federal bailout funds in 2009 for OneUnited Bank, a company in which her husband owned stock. He also sat on the bank’s board of directors from 2004 to 2008.

The announcement came days after another ethics subcommittee charged Rep. Charlie Rangel with 13 counts of wrongdoing, including allegations that the New York Democrat misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, accepted a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.

House Democratic leaders have initiated a multipronged effort to contain the damage that the ethics charges could wreak during the six-week recess that began Friday.

That approach centers on distancing themselves and their vulnerable incumbents from Rangel and Waters while touting the party’s record on overhauling the ethics process since winning control of the House in 2006. They also are trying to steer the conversation back to jobs and the economy, topics they’ve pinned their election-year strategy on.

“It’s obviously not how we would like to be spending our fall,” a Democratic leadership aide acknowledged. But the aide added that “the vast majority of voters are going to determine who they want in Congress based off of their views on the economy and whether or not they believe that we’re moving in the right direction. ... But certainly having what will be — I’m sure — a circus going on related to one, maybe two ethics trials, that won’t be helpful.”

As part of their effort to insulate Democrats from Rangel’s and Waters’ ethics woes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office has compiled a memo titled “The New Direction Congress: A Record of Ethics, Accountability and Transparency Reform” that details efforts to strengthen the ethics system.

The memo, which the Californian’s office has been sharing with reporters since it was distributed to all Members’ offices July 23, is part of what one House Democratic aide described Monday as a “very aggressive push” to educate the press about Democrats’ record on ethics.

Democratic leaders also have been strategic in their public comments on the matter. Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Democrats “have to uphold a high ethical standard, and none of our personalities is more important than that.”

Pelosi downplayed the potential political repercussions when she told reporters at her weekly press conference on Thursday that “the chips will have to fall where they may politically” and insisted that she had succeeded in her pledge to “drain the swamp” of a “criminal syndicate” that had operated “out of the Republican leader’s office” when the GOP controlled the chamber.

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