The House Ethics Committee has decided to investigate itself.
Plagued by infighting, allegations of improprieties and the collapse of its investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters, the Ethics Committee on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of hiring an outside counsel to review the panel’s operations and decide whether the probe of the California Democrat can move forward.
Waters was charged last year with arranging meetings with the Treasury Department on behalf of a bank in which her husband owned stock. A trial was scheduled, but just before it was set to begin last November, the committee announced that new information had arisen and the trial was postponed. Since then, pressure has been building on the committee to move forward or dismiss the case.
Two staffers were suspended and ultimately left the committee, and this week Politico revealed internal committee emails suggesting that the panel’s former staff director was concerned the case had been mishandled to such an extent that the integrity of the investigation had been compromised.
Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said in a lengthy statement Wednesday that “serious allegations” have been made about the committee’s own conduct in the Waters case and that it “has not taken these allegations lightly.”
“A thorough review of all of these serious allegations will be the very first task of the outside counsel’s engagement,” the joint statement said.
The committee hired Billy Martin, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, to investigate the panel’s conduct during the Waters probe. Based on those findings, if the panel decides the case against Waters can proceed, Martin will be kept on to aid in that process, according to the statement. According to the contract that the Ethics Committee entered into with Dorsey & Whitney, Martin has until Jan. 2, 2012, to deliver his report and could be paid up to $500,000.
Waters immediately claimed vindication.
“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,” Waters said in a statement. “I am confident that the counsel’s review of the committee’s misconduct will conclude that my rights were violated and further investigation of me is not warranted.”
Robert Kelner, head of the political law practice at Covington & Burling, said: “Given the range of allegations made against the committee — not only by Rep. Waters but apparently by the committee’s own former staffers — the committee had little option but to invite some kind of independent scrutiny. There clearly is a much deeper story here that has not yet seen the light of day. It will be Martin’s job to try to unravel that story.”
Though government watchdog groups had pushed for the hiring of an outside counsel this week in the wake of the leaked memorandums, experts said having Martin deliver his findings to the committee that he is investigating could prove problematic. The leaked memos indicate there might have been improper communications between the staffers handling the Waters case and Bonner and panel member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
“When you find evidence of wrongdoing by Ethics Committee members, where do you go?” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Though there are no past examples to serve as a template, attorneys familiar with the ethics process said there are several ways the Ethics Committee could react if Martin’s report reveals internal wrongdoing.
“If Martin identifies issues that touch individual members of the full committee, then those members might have to recuse themselves from consideration of his findings. If he identifies issues that touch a significant number of members, or that touch the leadership of the committee, then that might compromise the ability of the full committee to review and implement his findings,” Kelner said.
If there is evidence of pervasive misconduct, a special counsel could bypass the Ethics Committee altogether and deliver the report straight to House leadership, experts said.
While government watchdog groups applauded the committee’s decision to appoint a special counsel, many said the House should use the opportunity to further reform the ethics process by strengthening the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
The OCE can investigate complaints of wrongdoing within the House but does not have the ability to act on its conclusions. Its reports are sent to the Ethics Committee for further action, up to and including punishment.
“Given what has happened again at the House Ethics Committee, we need a strengthened Office of Congressional Ethics and we need them to play a larger role in the process,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said.