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In a report issued last week, the Ethics Committee explained that Waters took steps to inform Moore of her conflict of interest with respect to OneUnited and to prevent him from acting on OneUnited's behalf. First, she publicly disclosed her financial interest in OneUnited well before Moore's actions. Second, she informed the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee of the conflict of interest and that she would not be involved in OneUnited's efforts to obtain financial assistance. And, finally, she told Moore about her conversation with the chairman and directed Moore not to help with OneUnited's request.
This certainly does not mean that Members need not worry about the conduct of their staff. To the contrary, the ethics report cautioned Members that, notwithstanding the result in this particular case, "they may be held responsible for the actions of their staff."
In cases involving potential conflicts of interest, the report provided some useful tips. Where a Member is aware of a potential conflict of interest regarding a particular person or entity, the report says, the Member should inform all staffers of the potential conflict. To avoid "mistakes" and "misunderstandings," the report recommends notifying staff of all entities in which a Member has a financial interest and documenting the notification. Finally, the report says, Members should direct staff to inform those entities to direct specific requests for assistance elsewhere.
The fact that the Ethics Committee did not hold Waters responsible for her chief of staff's actions does not signal a change to its policy that Members can be liable for the actions of their staffers. Rather, it provides yet another reminder that Members should closely supervise their staffers, lest they expose themselves to potential trouble with the Ethics Committee.
C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Click here to submit questions. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship.