Calendar Won’t End the Ethics Showdown

Rangel, Waters Cases Could Drag Into 2011

Posted September 17, 2010 at 6:15pm

Congressional observers agreed last week that the House ethics committee will press to conclude two looming ethics trials before the 111th Congress adjourns, but they acknowledged the rules would allow the cases to proceed even if an abbreviated election-year schedule forces one or both matters into the next Congress.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct had not publicly announced the start dates late last week for unrelated ethics trials involving Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

“I think every effort is going to be made to resolve this this Congress, but it would not be procedurally impossible to hold it over until the next Congress,” said Stefan Passantino, a former Republican House aide who is now head of the political law team at McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Despite a flurry of public activity prior to the August recess, the ethics committee has not indicated whether it will initiate either hearing before the House adjourns next month, potentially as early as Oct. 1, nor has it said whether the adjudicatory panel will hold proceedings during the October recess, when Members would otherwise be on the campaign trail.

Waters has previously stated that she does not expect her trial to begin until after the November elections.

Passantino and others acknowledged that extending either trial into the 112th Congress could create small hurdles in the process, but they agreed that the adjudicatory hearings would not likely be derailed — even if there are new committee members or is change in committee leadership should Republicans retake the House.

A source knowledgeable with the Congressional ethics process said: “I do think under the rules, this wouldn’t be fatal to the process, but it might add a couple of procedural steps.”

In particular, the source said, after the full ethics committee organizes for the 112th Congress — the first obstacle, since the panel might not do so for several weeks into the new session — it would need to reauthorize the adjudicatory subcommittees.

“That would have to be done post-haste in order not to add any undue delay to the process,” the source said.

But the committee’s membership could change in the new Congress — the ethics panel is a universally unpopular assignment among Members — which would put Waters or Rangel before a different panel of judges than those they now expect to face.

Assuming proceedings in their respective ethics trials have not begun before January, that could also give each lawmaker a new opportunity to object to the Members who sit on those adjudicatory panels.

“Under those circumstances, and under committee Rule 23, [Waters or Rangel] would have the right to 10 additional days to object to the participation of any new Member of the adjudicatory subcommittee,” the source said.

According to the ethics committee’s rules, however, only the Member who is the subject of an objection may decide whether to recuse himself from the proceedings.

The scenario could become more complicated should either ethics trial begin in 2010 but fail to reach a conclusion before Congress adjourns, particularly if membership on the panel changes.

But House leaders could also compel the Members — assuming they are re-elected — now serving on those panels to remain in their assignments until the outstanding trials are complete.

“I can imagine it being used as an argument to persuade a Member to stay on the committee,” the source said.

Passantino said a change in the House majority, however, would have a negligible effect on the ethics committee, given that it must remain evenly divided between five Democrats and five Republicans.

“When you’ve got an ethics committee that tries to run in a balanced, bipartisan way, a lot of the concerns of transferring [the] chairman’s duties that are relevant in every other committee aren’t quite as relevant here,” Passantino said.

Attorneys for Rangel and Waters declined to comment for this article.

An ethics subcommittee charged Rangel in July with 13 counts of wrongdoing, including allegations that he misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, accepted a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms. Rangel has since paid the overdue taxes.

Rangel also acknowledged in a speech on the House floor in August that he may have violated some House rules, but he denied that his actions were corrupt.

A different investigative subcommittee charged Waters in August with violating the chamber’s rules over allegations that her chief of staff, Mikael Moore, tried to secure federal support for a bank in which Waters and her husband held hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock.

Waters, who has disputed wrongdoing by her office, has launched a forceful public defense of her actions, including distributing thousands of buttons and fliers last week seeking support at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference.