The headlines in several major dailies blared "Maxine Waters Under Scrutiny for Bank Ties." "Waters Helped Bank Whose Stock She Once Owned." "What is the Maxine Waters Scandal all About?"
The reports painted the embattled California Congresswoman --who is one of the most influential and outspoken elected officials-- as a corrupt, influence peddling, deal making politician who schemed to get millions in TARP bailout money for a bank in which her husband had stock. Waters, readers were told, faced possible ethics charges in the House.
There's a problem, no several problems, with this. Start with the headlines that trumpeted Water's woes. They are a year and half old. The House Ethics Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Congressional Black Caucus, and in fact all House Democrats reported and hashed over the allegations against her at the time.
Apart from the allegation that she arranged a meeting on behalf of the National Bankers Association, a minority banking group, with Treasury officials, and her husband had an interest in one of the banks, the allegation is not new. During that time, legions of bankers and Wall Street financial house reps met with treasury officials. They all came with hat in hand for bailout funds.
Waters did not attend the meeting in question and had no input in the decision by the Treasury to eventually shell out $12 million in bailout funds to minority banks. On the strength of an old charge, a single meeting, and no proof that Waters arm twisted Treasury officials to fork over money to the bank in question or any other minority bank, Waters muscled aside Charles Rangel as the poster politician for Congressional thievery and malfeasance.
It's no accident that Waters has been dumped on the political hot seat three months before the 2010 mid-term elections. House Democrats are scared stiff that the GOP will erase their majority. What better way to prove that they can police their own, and make good on Pelosi's oft quoted vow to cleanse the swamp in Congress than to make sacrificial lambs out of a handful of wayward Democrats. And furthermore, chose those who are the most identifiable, outspoken, and vulnerable, and that's African-American Democrats. The choice of Waters and Rangel has little to do with the actual charges and their alleged transgressions, or even whether they have merit or not. It's politics, pure and simple.
The list of white Republicans and Democrats that engage in influence peddling, conflict of interest, bed ties with lobbyists, nepotism, commit campaign financial violations and improprieties, would fill up a small telephone directory. There are occasions when a few of them get hand slap punishments for their sins. Almost always when they are so over the top they can't be ignored. But black politicians that are accused of wrongdoing, or actually do wrong, are called on the carpet far out of proportion to their numbers.
The pattern was set more than two decades ago. Between 1983 and 1988, the Reagan Justice Department initiated 465 political corruption probes of elected officials. A disproportionate percentage of the investigations were against black elected officials even though they comprised only three percent of US elected officials.
A decade later the pattern was repeated. Then, half of the 26 members of the Congressional Black Caucus were the subjects of federal investigations. To put the racial magnitude of the investigations in perspective, this was equivalent to bringing charges against 204 of the 409 white congressional representatives. Reagan and Bush Sr. officials hotly denied that there was any racial bias or animus in the top heavy number of black elected officials hit with investigations and in some cases charges.
Administrations officials said the investigations simply were intended to root out political corruption. There is a yes and no to that. Taking money and political cronyism is a time-honored tradition in American politics. A number of white politicians have been indicted, convicted and imprisoned, both Democrats and Republicans.
But timing and partisan politics can't be separated from who gets targeted for prosecution or hit with ethics charges. In the case of Rangel and now Waters, they are not rank and file Democrats, they are two of the highest profile, nationally known Democrats, and apart from the fact they're African-American, this gives even greater veneer of credence to Pelosi and ranking Democrats contention that they'll go after any Democrats no matter their party rank and stature that cross the ethics line.
Pelosi and the Democrats should hold to that high standard. But they should hold to it with all Democrats. Waters and Rangel may face trial, and the betting odds are that every effort will be made to lay out their dirty ethics laundry. If convicted, the Democrats will crow that their penalties will serve as warning that the Democrats are staunch standard keepers of the ethical flame in the House. Waters is the perfect sacrificial lamb for them to make that case.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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