Lawyers for Rep. Maxine Waters have accused the House ethics committee of applying a double standard by charging her with rules violations for actions that they claim are comparable to the actions of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who was exonerated by the committee last year.
The investigative subcommittee that filed the charges against Waters rejected this argument and refused to dismiss the case against her in July.
The ethics committee on Monday released an investigative subcommittee’s three formal charges against Waters in preparation for an ethics trial this fall. The committee announced last week that the California Democrat would face a trial, but it did not detail the charges against her. Waters asked the committee to release the full charges so that she could publicly respond.
The statement of alleged violations essentially faults Waters for failing to direct her chief of staff not to provide assistance to the minority-owned OneUnited Bank after Waters recognized that her involvement might pose a conflict of interest.
In September 2008, the bank was concerned about the federal takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which wiped out the value of the bank’s significant holding in Fannie and Freddie stock. Waters’ husband had been a board member of OneUnited, and according to the investigators, his holdings in the bank at the time were worth about $350,000.
Waters called then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who set up a meeting for two bank representatives — one of whom was also head of a minority bank trade association — with senior Treasury officials. The OneUnited representatives asked for $50 million to compensate the bank for Fannie and Freddie losses, the investigators concluded.
Afterward, Waters spoke with Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who told her he was already working to solve the problems of OneUnited and other minority banks and she should not get involved.
While the investigative subcommittee did not accuse Waters of any violations for these actions, it concluded that her chief of staff, Mikael Moore — who is also her grandson — continued to engage in conversation with OneUnited officials and took additional steps to help the bank recover its funding.
By not directing him to “refrain from assisting OneUnited,” Waters created the appearance that she was using her office to benefit her own financial interests, according to the statement of alleged violations. In addition, her failure to call off her staff member was “inconsistent with the spirit of the House Rule applicable to receiving compensation by virtue of influence improperly exerted,” according to the statement.
But in a mid-July motion to dismiss the charges, Waters’ attorneys argued that she is the victim of the committee’s “disparate treatment” and that none of the things she is accused of were deemed violations by the committee in the investigation of Graves.
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, and neither Graves nor the witness disclosed these relationships during the hearing.
According to the July 12 motion, Graves was cleared because “financial interest was only as a member of a class” — that is, a group of investors in the renewable fuels plants. In addition, his investment was reported on his financial disclosure forms, the committee took no direct action to aid the companies in which Mrs. Graves 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 “create 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. Like Graves, Waters had disclosed her husband’s holdings in the bank on her annual disclosure forms, and like Graves, her financial interest was as a member of a class of investors.
“In its analysis of both the legal standards and the underlying factual record at issue, this committee has adopted an approach that is sharply divergent and significantly harsher than the decision rendered in Graves and other relevant precedent,” Brand and Herman argued.
But the investigative subcommittee rejected these arguments in a July 15 order, arguing that the similarities between the Graves and Waters cases were simply superficial.
In an order signed by Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the subcommittee noted that “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 conversation 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.
In addition, the subcommittee noted that in the Graves case there was no way that the Graves family could have benefited financially from the testimony of the witness, whereas in the Waters case, her office’s intervention could have benefited her financial position, which means that her staff involvement created the appearance that she was pursuing a personal financial interest.
“Respondent’s heavy reliance on Graves is misplaced,” the subcommittee concluded, and it refused to dismiss the charges against Waters.