California Democrat Maxine Waters faces a House trial this fall on three charges of ethical wrongdoing, setting the stage for a second election-season public airing of ethics problems for a longtime Democratic lawmaker.
The charges focus on whether Waters broke the rules in requesting federal help for a bank where her husband owned stock and had served on the board of directors. She denied the charges Monday.
Persons familiar with the case said Waters is accused of violating:
—A rule that House members may not exert improper influence that results in a personal benefit.
—The government employees' ethics code, which prohibits granting or accepting special favors, for the employee or family members, that could be viewed as influencing official actions.
—A rule that members' conduct must reflect creditably on the House.
The persons were not authorized to be quoted by name on allegations not yet made public.
The House ethics committee's announcement comes just days after it outlined 13 charges against Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., including failing to disclose assets and income, delayed payment of federal taxes and improper use of a subsidized New York apartment for his campaign office.
Rangel, the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman who has served for 40 years, faces a trial in the fall.
Democrats face certain losses in the congressional elections, the first midterms for President Barack Obama, and the high-profile trials could further damage the party's political standing.
Republicans quickly jumped on the latest news. The GOP's House campaign committee released a statement with the headline: "The Dirty Details: Ethics Office Reveals Waters Charges. Panel Has 'Substantial Reason to Believe' Dems Have Another Ethics Problem on Their Hands."
Waters is a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, which handled the recent rewrite of legislation that regulates financial institutions and has strong protections for consumers.
Rangel stepped aside in March as the chief House tax writer following a negative report on his conduct in a separate ethics case. In addition to taxes, his committee handles trade, portions of health care reform, Medicare and Social Security.
The charges against Waters were filed July 28 by a four-member investigative panel, but not announced until Monday. An eight-member subcommittee of four Democrats and four Republicans will now conduct the Waters trial. The specifics of the allegations won't be made public until the panel — four Democrats and four Republicans — hold its still-unscheduled organizational meeting.
Brendan Daly, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi commented, "As we have said in the past about the process, ethics proceedings are a result of a bipartisan, confidential and independent process in the House."
In a statement, Waters said, "I have not violated any House rules. Therefore, I simply will not be forced to admit to something I did not do and instead have chosen to respond to charges made by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in a public hearing."
The ethics committee also released a year-old report by the Office of Congressional Ethics — a separate body of non-lawmakers that conducts a preliminary investigation.
That report said that in September 2008, Waters asked then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to have Treasury officials meet representatives from the National Bankers Association, a trade group representing minority-owned and women-owned banks.
At a meeting and subsequent follow-up activity through Waters' office, the discussion centered on OneUnited Bank.
Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, had been a board member of OneUnited from 2004 through April 21, 2008, according to the ethics report. Her 2008 financial disclosure report said Williams had two investments in OneUnited valued between $500,000 and $1 million.
The report said Waters told Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, that she was in a predicament because her husband had been involved with the bank that needed help. Frank told the Office of Congressional Ethics, "She knew she should say no, but it bothered her." Frank testified it was clear to him that this was a conflict of interest problem.
His advice to Waters was to "stay out of it," the report said.
Waters said in her statement, "The record will clearly show that in advocating on behalf of minority banks, neither my office nor I benefited in any way, engaged in improper action or influenced anyone."
She added that she fully disclosed her assets as required by House rules, "even going above and beyond the requirements by disclosing my assets at several Financial Services Committee hearings. In sum, the case against me has no merit."
She said the accusations stem from her advocacy work for minority communities and businesses.
She said it was the National Bankers Association that requested the meeting with Treasury Department officials. The meeting was held on behalf of the association, not OneUnited Bank, she said.
"I followed up on the association's request by asking then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to schedule such a meeting, as did other members of Congress. Secretary Paulson recognized that the NBA's concerns about the future of minority banks were valid and arranged for a meeting.
"No benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced: no case," said Waters, who chairs the Financial Services subcommittee on housing and community opportunity.
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