Waters, Like Rangel, Takes Flak for Staff Action
In September 2008, Rep. Maxine Waters arranged for two officials from a minority-owned bank in which she was heavily invested to meet with Treasury Department officials about the bank’s shaky financial future.
According to the House ethics committee, Waters’ role in setting up that meeting was not a violation of House rules. But the California Democrat apparently realized that her involvement could be construed as a conflict of interest, and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) suggested that she wash her hands of the matter. She did.
And that is where the ethics charges against her begin.
According to a charging document released Monday by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Waters violated House rules by failing to direct her chief of staff to disengage from the issue as well. In the ensuing weeks, according to the charging document, her top aide — who is also her grandson — received e-mails from bank officials, communicated with Frank’s staff and provided draft legislation to the bank’s CEO, which “created an appearance that [Waters] was taking official action for [her] personal benefit, which did not reflect creditably on the House.”
The bank ultimately received a $12 million federal bailout that, ethics committee investigators concluded, rescued not only the bank but the Waters family’s personal investments as well, worth at one point more than $350,000.
Thus Waters not only faces an ethics trial this fall in parallel with Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), but she also faces the rule that got Rangel a reprimand earlier this year: that Members are responsible for the actions of their staff, even if they do not know what the staff members are doing.
Rangel was the only Member admonished by the ethics committee in February for accepting two corporate-funded Caribbean trips. The other five Members who accepted the free travel were told to repay the costs, but Rangel was admonished because the committee concluded that his staff knew it was an improper trip, and therefore he should have known as well.
In July, Waters’ lawyers filed a scalding counterargument to the charges against her, saying the relevant standard is Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who was exonerated by the ethics committee last year.
In the Graves case, the Office of Congressional Ethics had suggested there was “a substantial reason to believe Graves had created an appearance of a conflict of interest” by extending an invitation to testify at a Small Business Committee hearing to an old friend and business partner of his wife’s. The hearing was about renewable fuels, and Graves’ wife and the witness were co-investors in two small renewable fuels cooperatives. Neither Graves nor the witness disclosed these relationships during the hearing.
According to Waters’ July 12 motion, Graves was cleared because his “financial interest was only as a member of a class” — that is, a group of investors in the renewable fuels plants. In addition, the investment was reported on his financial disclosure forms, the committee took no direct action to aid the companies in which his wife and the witness were invested, and the decision to invite the witness was made largely by the committee staff “with limited input from the Representative.”
According to Waters’ lawyers, on those same criteria she should also be exonerated, and the committee’s failure to do so creates “both the appearance and the actuality of a double standard. Indeed the disparate approach to the two cases, which share so many similarities, is inexplicable.”
Waters’ lawyers — Stan Brand and Andrew Herman — argued that the allegations against Waters are based on what her chief of staff did, with no evidence that she had knowledge of his activities, and that there is no clear evidence that he took steps that directly aided the bank. While the bank ultimately received federal aid, that aid was premised on the fact that the bank had received private funding guaranteeing its solvency, so there is no indication that any action by Waters’ office saved the bank and thereby preserved the value of Waters’ investments, Brand and Herman argued.
But the investigative subcommittee that filed the charges was unswayed.
“Respondent’s heavy reliance on Graves is misplaced,” the subcommittee concluded.
In the Graves case, “the sole allegation of any action at issue in Graves was the invitation to the witness to testify at the hearing.” In Waters, the allegation is that her chief of staff engaged in conversations with bank officials and helped them arrange meetings with the purpose of securing financing that would shore up a bank that made up a significant portion of Waters’ investment portfolio.
And the fact that it was Waters’ staff that was leading the charge makes no difference, the subcommittee concluded. In rejecting her motion to dismiss the charges, the subcommittee noted “the statement of alleged violation plainly states that … Respondent is responsible for the conduct and actions of members of her staff, especially her chief of staff, when members of her staff are acting within the scope and course of their employment.'”
The subcommittee said the relevant precedent is not Graves but rather Rangel’s admonishment for the Caribbean trip. “Representative Rangel delegated to his chief of staff the authority to complete and sign the traveler forms on his behalf, and therefore could be held responsible for the knowledge his chief of staff had when completing the forms,” the subcommittee wrote.
Waters’ office declined to comment for this article.