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Outsider Privy to Ethics Case

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Maxine Waters has seized on the admission of leaked emails as a sign of the Ethics Committee’s dysfunction and has demanded that the panel release the special counsel’s findings from a yearlong review.

Just days before the House Ethics Committee was slated to hold a rare public trial of Rep. Maxine Waters, the committee’s then-ranking member, Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), shared an email about the status of the case with a staffer in his personal office who did not serve on the committee.

The committee’s rules typically bar such exchanges about the panel’s investigations with outsiders, but there are several provisions that can be used to loop in additional individuals, legal experts told Roll Call.

Though these rules allow Members to work more efficiently by allowing communication and coordination between committee and office staffers, they widen the circle of people who are familiar with the inner workings of a panel that has in recent years grappled with unauthorized leaks.

The November 2010 email from Bonner, who now chairs the committee, to Kelle Strickland, a staff member in his office and on the committee, and Alan Spencer, his chief of staff, attached a memo from the committee’s staff
director to then-Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that discussed the legal framework for sending the Waters matter back to an investigative subcommittee for further review. The email was part of an exchange obtained by Roll Call.

The week after the email was sent, the committee announced that Waters’ public trial would be postponed.

Internal documents later leaked to the media showed that the staff director was concerned that ethics staffers may have compromised the probe by improperly sharing information with Members who would be deciding the outcome of the case.

Though the committee said earlier this month that a specially hired outside counsel’s yearlong review largely absolved it of mishandling the Waters matter, the panel allowed that one of its former staffers had likely leaked confidential information and one had made racially insensitive remarks (it is not clear whether it was the same individual).

Waters, who declined to comment for this story, has seized on the admissions as signs of committee dysfunction and has demanded that the committee release the special counsel’s findings. The committee rejected her request, saying the counsel had not prepared a written report.

There are several ways the Ethics Committee can make additional staffers privy to the status of its probes. But doing so brings individuals into the ethics process who are aren’t as familiar with the workings of the committee — and perhaps less invested in its confidentiality rules, legal experts told Roll Call.

The chairman and ranking member, for example, typically have one staffer from their personal office who is also authorized to work on ethics matters, under the premise that it is beneficial to have one individual who is familiar with the Member’s work both outside and on the committee.

“Each may appoint one individual,” the  committee’s rules state.

Bonner’s appointed individual at this time, referred to as a designee, was Strickland, who is his counsel now that he chairs the committee.

There are two other provisions that the chairman and ranking member can use to bring additional staffers into the fold.

The first rule states that information cannot be shared with those outside the panel “unless authorized by the Committee.”

The committee could, therefore, vote to approve additional staffers for specific matters, though such action would likely be taken during a private meeting, experts said.

Even without a committee vote, its leaders could interpret a rule that allows the chairman and ranking member to “after consultation with each other ... make public statements regarding matters before the Committee or any subcommittee” in a way that allows them to share information with additional members of their personal staff.

“To a certain extent, that [rule] is viewed as an ability to disclose things that would otherwise not be able to be disclosed ... and it could in theory be used to also permit some sharing that isn’t completely public,” said one attorney familiar with the panel’s work who asked not to be named.

The committee would not confirm whether it had voted to approve or otherwise authorize Spencer or any other staffers to work on the Waters case or other pending investigations during this time period.

The offices of Bonner and Lofgren declined to comment on the email.

The long-delayed Waters case, which began in the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, will likely move forward now that the special counsel has completed his review of the committee’s handling of the probe.

Waters’ role in setting up a meeting between Treasury Department officials and the National Bankers Association is alleged to be a conflict of interest because her husband had a financial stake in OneUnited Bank, which was discussed at the meeting.

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