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Richardson Probe Raises Questions of Race

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Does the Ethics Committee discriminate?

The House Ethics Committee today announced that it has formed an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) violated Congressional ethics rules by urging Hill staffers to attend campaign events, run personal errands and work on her re-election effort.

Richardson swiftly slammed the probe — the second against her in as many years — as a politically motivated attack by an Ethics Committee that has chosen to focus its efforts on members of the Congressional Black Caucus, setting the stage for a racially tinged ethics showdown over how the committee investigates Members.

“Numerous Members have used their House offices for personal lodging, in some cases for years, saving tens of thousands of dollars personally at taxpayers’ expense. Under House rules, personal use of House resources is as impermissible as political use. Accordingly, I will raise this issue with the Ethics Committee,” Richardson said in a statement released by her office before the formal announcement was made. “I also intend to explore the issue of whether the Ethics Committee has engaged in discriminatory conduct in pursuing two investigations against me while simultaneously failing to apply the same standards to or take the same actions against other Members — of whom the overwhelming majority are white males.”

All of the current investigations the committee has publicly acknowledged involve black Members.

The investigative subcommittee that will determine whether Richardson committed any ethics violations due to the misuse of official resources will be chaired by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and will include Reps. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.). A statement released by Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said that Yarmuth had stepped in as ranking member for the investigation at the behest of Sánchez, who recused herself because of recent Congressional redistricting in California.

Richardson will likely have allies in her quest to show that the back-to-back investigations may have a racial component.

The Congressional Black Caucus has not been shy about criticizing an ethics process that has ensnared many in its ranks in recent years.

CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said today that while he did not have enough evidence to determine whether the committee’s decision to open the Richardson probe was racially motivated, the announcement is certainly raising that question among CBC Members.

“I get the sense that every time a case pops up there is another level of suspicion that this may have a racial connotation to it, racial undertones to it,” he said. “I think a person would have to be really jaded not to have at least a thought on the issue of race based on things that we’ve seen around here.”

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.

Cleaver said the Richardson probe has not hastened the call to disband the Office of Congressional Ethics but acknowledged that the office remains unpopular among caucus members.

A CBC aide said that ethics charges against the group’s members will likely come up an upcoming caucus meeting.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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