In 2009 the Ethics Committee empaneled an investigative subcommittee to review trips taken by six Democratic members of the CBC and determine its connection to Carib News and the Carib News Foundation. After an eight-month investigation it cleared five — Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.) and Donald Payne (N.J.), former Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (Mich.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) — of wrongdoing because they were unaware the travel constituted an impermissible gift at the time the travel took place. At the same time it publicly admonished Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).Last December Rangel was the first lawmaker in more than 25 years to be censured by the House upon a recommendation from the Ethics Committee. That case was on unrelated charges that included failing to pay his taxes and using his office to raise funds for charity.
For nearly two years, the committee has had an open investigation into CBC member Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is alleged to have arranged meetings with Treasury Department officials on behalf of a bank in which her husband owned stock. An ethics trial was slated to begin last November but was postponed when the committee uncovered new information. In July the committee took the unprecedented step of hiring an independent investigator to look into the botched Waters investigation after emails surfaced that showed the panel’s former staff director was concerned the case had been mishandled. The independent investigator has until Jan. 2. to decide whether the Waters case can move forward.
The Ethics Committee has also resumed a preliminary investigation of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), after the Justice Department last month withdrew its request that the committee hold off while it brought it’s case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). Jackson is alleged to have offered to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for being appointed to the Senate seat left open when President Barack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008.
In August, the committee also announced that it would continue investigating a $40,000 loan that CBC member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) received in 2007 but said it would do so without forming an investigative subcommittee.
At the same time, the committee declined to investigate Rep. Jean Schmidt’s receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of legal fees, saying they were an improper gift, but that the Ohio Republican was not aware of the arrangement.
The inquiries into Richardson, Waters, Jackson and Meeks are the only probes the Ethics Committee has confirmed in public statements.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent agency established by the House in 2008 to review allegations of misconduct and refer matters to the Ethics Committee for action, has also drawn the ire of CBC members. The OCE is known to have referred the cases of Richardson, Meeks and Waters for further investigation and there are likely others.
Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who was the subject of an OCE inquiry last year and was later cleared, recently offered an amendment to a legislative branch appropriations bill that would have cut OCE funding by 40 percent, chopping $619,200 from the office’s $1.5 million budget. Though the Watt amendment was defeated 102-302, it had the support of some caucus members.