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Republicans on the House Ethics Committee who last year criticized then-Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) for delaying the trials of Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) may have been partly responsible for the delay, according to internal committee documents leaked Monday.
Memoranda between the committee’s former staff director and Lofgren indicate that staff on the investigative subcommittee gathering information about Waters and Rangel communicated about the merits of the case with Ethics members Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and current Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) in violation of House rules. The memos were first reported and released by Politico on Monday.
Both Bonner and McCaul were slated to sit on the six-member adjudicatory subcommittee chosen to hear the Waters case, and McCaul served on the Rangel subcommittee as well. The adjudicatory subcommittee is essentially the jury in the event of a House ethics trial,
“There are strong indications that there were impermissible ex parte communications between investigative staff and, at a minimum, Rep. McCaul with respect to the merits of the case before the commencement of the hearing,” former staff director Blake Chisam wrote in a memo to Lofgren about the Rangel case.
Regarding Bonner’s knowledge of the Waters case, Chisam wrote: “I ... have stayed out of the factual issues in the case. As indicated above and in email traffic, I am not confident that the same can be said of the Ranking Member.”
Spokesmen for both Bonner and McCaul declined to comment for this story.
Chisam, who has since left the Hill for the private sector, was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
In September, Bonner and McCaul were among a group of Republican lawmakers — including Reps. Mike Conaway (Texas), Gregg Harper (Miss.) and Charlie Dent (Pa.) — who accused Lofgren of blocking the Rangel and Waters ethics trials from occurring before the November elections.
Then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) supported the GOP Members, saying in a news conference, “I think the fact that the five members, the five Republican members of the bipartisan Ethics Committee have had to resort to sending a letter to the chairman indicates that all is not well” within the panel.
Lofgren, in turn, announced that Rangel’s and Waters’ trials would commence in November.
“Last week’s unprecedented statement by the minority members of the Committee, in contrast to their prior requests and ongoing discussions, called upon the Chair to unilaterally establish the schedule,” Lofgren said in an Ethics Committee statement Oct. 7.
Rangel protested his trial, but the adjudicatory subcommittee hearing determined that the New York Democrat was guilty of 11 of the 13 charges brought by the investigative subcommittee. The House later voted 333-79 to censure Rangel, marking the first time in nearly 30 years that a Member has been publicly rebuked on the House floor.
But the Waters trial quickly derailed, becoming a symbol of Ethics Committee dysfunction.
Ten days before the trial was set to begin, Lofgren released a brief statement that said the committee had voted to send the case back to an investigative subcommittee after uncovering new information. Two staff attorneys handling the case, Morgan Kim and Stacey Sovereign, were placed on paid leave as the committee investigated possible misconduct. The committee has not confirmed the status of the probe or whether it will proceed in the eight months since.
The memos released by Politico for the first time provided details about the roles played by Kim and Sovereign, describing procedural errors made by the staffers and communications with committee Republicans that Chisam believed to be in violation of House rules.
“These two staff members have repeatedly disobeyed clear directives. ... As a result, they have made or caused to be made significant errors in matters presently before the Committee,” Chisam wrote. “Their actions have created a clear and present danger to the Committee’s activities, particularly with respect to the Rangel and Waters matters.”
Both Waters and government watchdog groups on Monday called for the committee to dismiss the case based on the flawed investigative process revealed in the leaked memos.
“No other remedy exists to cure this misconduct,” Waters’ attorney Stan Brand said in a statement. “Given that both current Members and staff are implicated in these documents, any other suggested remedy would lack legal credibility and would confirm an unprecedented level of bias against my client.”
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has criticized Waters in the past, called for an investigation of the Ethics Committee and said that in light of the new information, the Waters probe should be dismissed or started anew.
“At this point, far more important than an inquiry into the conduct of any specific member of Congress is an investigation into the committee itself,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan wrote in a letter to Boehner and current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “A thorough review of the committee’s actions in the Waters case should be conducted by well-respected outside counsel.”
Boehner’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A Pelosi spokesman said the Congresswoman does not comment on pending ethics matters.