Experts said the Waters and Berkley cases have parallels to that of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.). In that case, the OCE determined in 2009 that there was “substantial reason to believe that an appearance of a conflict of interest was created” when Graves asked a friend to testify at a House Small Business Committee hearing, given that the individual had invested in the same renewable fuel cooperatives as Graves’ wife.
But in a strongly worded report, the committee dismissed the independent ethics office’s interpretation, saying that “no relevant House Rule or other standard of conduct prohibits creation of an appearance of a conflict of interest when selecting witnesses.”
The committee also noted that Graves had disclosed his wife’s financial interest in the entities, and it said that voters could decide whether there was any conflict of interest.
Waters’ legal team has likened her case to that of Graves in urging its dismissal. Like Graves, Waters had acted in a way that both benefited a larger class of individuals and was adequately disclosed, her attorneys said.
“The Committee has adopted an approach that is sharply divergent and significantly harsher than the decision rendered in Graves,” Stan Brand, Waters’ lawyer, wrote in a motion to dismiss the case.
But the committee said Waters’ arguments “regarding conflict of interest have no bearing” because it is a case related to more specific rules concerning exerting influence for personal benefit.
Experts say a variety of factors could affect whether conflict-of-interest and use of office for personal gain charges merit a more serious probe. Though the committee has a policy of not commenting on matters under its purview, its decision to pursue such cases could hinge on factors that include whether a lawmaker’s financial benefit can be definitively valued, the stake a Member has in a particular outcome compared to other similarly situated individuals and whether the lawmaker adequately and proactively disclosed his or her financial interest in the matter, experts said.
But to those on the outside, the cases look similar.
“I can’t distinguish Graves from Berkley and Waters; they are nearly indistinguishable,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“The Ethics Committee might have felt that it would have a hard time letting Berkley go, given Waters, and that makes sense to me … but then why not Sam Graves?”