WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee named an outside counsel Wednesday to investigate its own partisanship, as well as allegations against Rep. Maxine Waters, a senior Democrat who helps oversee the financial services industry.
In an extraordinary announcement acknowledging deep internal conflicts, the committee said Washington attorney Billy Martin's first task will be to investigate how the committee handled the Waters case. Internal documents, obtained by The Associated Press over the past several months, show that two committee attorneys last year communicated solely with Republicans about Waters and other cases.
The case of Waters, D-Calif., is focused on whether she tried to aid a troubled bank where her husband owns stock. The investigation has been in limbo for eight months, because the two lawyers and the former chief counsel left the ethics committee. All five Democrats from last year quit the committee over the communications with Republicans, forcing the panel to start over with new lawmakers and staff.
Waters this week demanded that the case be dismissed on grounds that partisanship has made it impossible to give her a fair proceeding. The committee has five members from each party and its investigative staff is supposed to be non-partisan. The five Republicans from last year remained on the committee.
Waters said after the announcement, "For the first time in the history of the ethics committee, it has initiated an inquiry into its own misconduct and taken the extraordinary step of hiring an outside counsel to explore the depth and breadth of the committee's misconduct."
She said the review would only reveal "more troubling information," and added that the report on the conduct should be made public. Waters called the announcement "a recognition by the committee that its investigation of me was misguided, flawed and could go no further."
Last year, then-deputy counsel C. Morgan Kim communicated about the Waters case with Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., who currently is the committee chairman. The memos were not sent to the then-Democratic chairman, Zoe Lofgren of California. They included these messages:
_In an Aug. 18, email from Kim to Bonner, she complained that then-chief counsel Blake Chisam berated her for not complying with a request by the chairman, and she threatened to quit.
"Bonner replied, `You have every reason to be frustrated, mad, etc. But we are too close to accomplishing some really important things. We'll talk. Thanks for everything.'"
_Two days earlier, Kim wrote Bonner that she would be "happy to provide greater detail regarding the facts in dispute" in the Waters case. Bonner replied, "Thanks so much."
_Last Nov. 3, as the Waters case was heading toward a House trial on the allegations, Kim complained to Bonner that a request from Lofgren was unreasonable. Bonner replied, "So sorry" for what he called an impulsive decision. "Keep me posted," he said.
Kim and another attorney, Stacy Sovereign, were suspended last year by Lofgren. She acted after learning of their memos and emails to Republicans. Neither attorney is currently employed by the committee, and they have denied any misconduct.
"We welcome any outside, independent review of activities of my clients and I have every expectation that Mr. Martin will conclude – as did the committee – that they acted appropriately and ethically in all respects," said Richard Sauber, lawyer for Kim and Sovereign.
Sauber's committee reference was to a letter Bonner sent to the two lawyers earlier this year, saying they did nothing wrong.
The case partly focused on a meeting Waters requested between Treasury Department officials and representatives of an association representing minority-owned banks, including Boston-based OneUnited. The committee also investigated bailout legislation that would have helped the bank, where Waters' husband Sidney Williams owns stock that would have been worthless if the bank failed.
Waters has contended that her efforts were to help all troubled minority-owned banks, especially those – like OneUnited – that were in trouble because of their investments in collapsing mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout money in December 2008, but Treasury Department officials have told House investigators that Waters was not involved in that decision.
The case took an unusual turn last year. The committee issued charges that Waters' efforts were aimed at OneUnited in violation of House rules, and a trial was set for Nov. 18. It was postponed at the last minute, after the internal blow-up over the roles of the two attorneys.
In the announcement on Wednesday, Bonner and ranking Democrat Linda Sanchez of California said, "Serious allegations have been made about the committee's own conduct in this matter by Representative Waters and others.
"The committee has not taken these allegations lightly. The entire membership of the Committee on Ethics believes that its work must always comport with the highest standards of integrity."
The committee said Martin's first task will be review the committee's internal conflicts and allow Waters to clarify her concerns about the case.
Martin would then present his findings to the committee, which would decide whether to proceed in the case.
The announcement said an independent review would permit a faster resolution of the case than if the committee staff handled the matter alone. Martin's work also would "help assure all respondents and the entire House community of the integrity of the committee's process for all matters," the statement said.
Martin has represented elected officials from both parties and also has been a federal prosecutor.