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Ethics Panel Hires Investigator to Probe Waters Case

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The House Ethics Committee has decided to investigate itself.

Plagued by infighting, allegations of improprieties and the collapse of its investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters, the Ethics Committee on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of hiring an outside counsel to review the panel’s operations and decide whether the probe of the California Democrat can move forward.

Waters was charged last year with arranging meetings with the Treasury Department on behalf of a bank in which her husband owned stock. A trial was scheduled, but just before it was set to begin last November, the committee announced that new information had arisen and the trial was postponed. Since then, pressure has been building on the committee to move forward or dismiss the case.

Two staffers were suspended and ultimately left the committee, and this week Politico revealed internal committee emails suggesting that the panel’s former staff director was concerned the case had been mishandled to such an extent that the integrity of the investigation had been compromised.

Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said in a lengthy statement Wednesday that “serious allegations” have been made about the committee’s own conduct in the Waters case and that it “has not taken these allegations lightly.”

“A thorough review of all of these serious allegations will be the very first task of the outside counsel’s engagement,” the joint statement said.

The committee hired Billy Martin, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, to investigate the panel’s conduct during the Waters probe. Based on those findings, if the panel decides the case against Waters can proceed, Martin will be kept on to aid in that process, according to the statement. According to the contract that the Ethics Committee entered into with Dorsey & Whitney, Martin has until Jan. 2, 2012, to deliver his report and could be paid up to $500,000.

Waters immediately claimed vindication.

“For the first time in the history of the ethics committee, it has initiated an inquiry into its own misconduct and taken the extraordinary step of hiring an outside counsel to explore the depth and breadth of the committee’s misconduct,” Waters said in a statement. “I am confident that the counsel’s review of the committee’s misconduct will conclude that my rights were violated and further investigation of me is not warranted.”

Robert Kelner, head of the political law practice at Covington & Burling, said: “Given the range of allegations made against the committee — not only by Rep. Waters but apparently by the committee’s own former staffers — the committee had little option but to invite some kind of independent scrutiny. There clearly is a much deeper story here that has not yet seen the light of day. It will be Martin’s job to try to unravel that story.”

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