As the Democratic party looks to maintain its control of Congress they are faced with a couple of potentially major problems as autumn elections loom later this year. Two of its senior Congress members are being charged with ethics violations that could change the balance of power in Congress depending on how voters are influenced.

Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) have been charged with congressional ethics violations (Rep. Rangel is charged with 13; Rep. Waters is charged with three). They intend to fight in respective House trials that will take place in the fall–at election time. (See the side bar “House ethics investigations and Black lawmakers.”)

From the analysis by some political observers, the accusations against Reps. Rangel and Waters are not intended to influence elections in their respective districts but in contests around the nation. There are subtle hints of racial components as well as political maneuvering on the part of Republicans in an attempt to discredit Rangel and Waters to voters across the United States and in an effort to gain seats in the House and the Senate. There are 432 members in Congress and only these two have been singled out. “Those two (Rangel and Waters), outside of President (Barack) Obama and his appointees, are the most powerful Black elected officials in the U.S. at the federal level,” says Dr. David L. Horne, executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute. “Although these accusations may seem to be something that just came up, this is something that has been going on since early 2009.

“The Congressional Black Caucus hates this investigative process because it seems to target Black politicians,” added Horne.

According to some, these allegations against two highly ranked Democratic lawmakers complicate the party’s plan to maintain its control of Congress. “This just forces (the Democrats) on the defensive even more,” said national political analyst Nathan Gonzalez. “And it really makes it difficult for them to get their message out when they’re trying to defend (Rangel and Waters).”
Rep. Gene Green (D-TX), who led the investigative panel that reported the charges, expressed regret before reading the allegations against Rangel. “I think it’s safe to say none of us enjoyed this assignment,” Rep. Green lamented. “No one wants to investigate their peers.”

Some Republicans, most notably House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), have pounced on the situation to criticize the Democratic majority. “Nancy Pelosi said four years ago that it was ‘time to drain the swamp,’ but the fact is she has not kept her promise,” Rep. Boehner said. “The ‘swamp’ is alive and well.”

Among the 13 charges Rangel faces are: improperly using his office to solicit donations for a school of public policy in his name at the City College of New York (CCNY); using a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem for his campaign office; failing to report more than $600,000 on his financial disclosure report; and failing to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.

Rangel maintains that he is innocent. In a written statement submitted by his lawyers, the congressman insisted that the ethics investigators overstepped their jurisdiction and disregarded his Constitutional rights. Rangel said the investigative subcommittee that brought charges against him “acted beyond the scope of its authority” and did not give him enough time to provide a defense, violating the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. He called their findings “deeply flawed.”

The 20-term lawmaker noted in his statement that he formally called on the ethics panel to dismiss his case in late June. The panel has not set a date for the trial but it is expected to begin in mid-September–less than two months before Democrats face an election that Republicans hope will result in them regaining control of the House.

Rangel, who won his 15th District with 89 percent of the vote, figures to be victorious again despite the allegations. The ethics panel attempted to offer the venerable representative a deal, but Rangel did not accept it and chose to fight the allegations in a House trial.

“We are now in the trial phase,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX). Rangel had an opportunity to reach a deal during the panel’s investigatory phase, Rep. McCaul said. “The unanimous findings of the ethics panel, if accurate, indicate that Rangel not only broke House rules but federal statutes, as well,” McCaul said.

Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who chairs the committee and will oversee the trial said, “We live in a time where public skepticism about the institutions in our country is very high. It has been the goal of our ethics committee throughout this Congress to, by our actions, rebuild and earn trust by the public and our colleagues.”

Congresswoman Waters also declined to accept a reprimand to settle her case. Rep. Waters, a member of the Financial Services Committee, is charged with using her influence to arrange a meeting between Treasury Department officials and the National Bankers Association regarding OneUnited Bank. Waters’ husband, Sydney Williams, was a shareholder in the bank at that time and formerly served on its board of directors.

Waters strongly denies that she is guilty of any wrongdoing. “I have not violated any House rules,” she interjected. “Therefore, I simply will not be forced to admit to something that 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 committee released a 23-page report detailing allegations against the California representative, and announced it has formed an adjudicatory subcommittee to hold a trial regarding the charges. The report was written by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) last year but was made public Monday.

The document contained no specific charges. However, the document stated there is “substantial reason to believe” Waters committed a violation by improperly using her position to help others benefit financially.

The congresswoman assured her supporters that she is innocent. “(There was) no benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced. There is no case,” she insisted. “I welcome the opportunity to show my constituents and the American public that the accusations against me are frivolous and unfounded.”

Members of Rep. Waters’ constituency appear willing to give the congresswoman the benefit of the doubt and allow the legal process to unfold before casting negative judgment on her.

“If it wasn’t for her,” commented Hawthorne resident Gwenivere Lay, “there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to go to school or get jobs. It remains to be seen if (these accusations) are true or not.”

The report shows that Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told investigators that Waters had approached him for advice in the potential conflict of interest involving her husband.

“She was in a predicament, because Sydney had been involved in the bank,” the report states, characterizing Frank’s interview with investigators. “But OneUnited people were coming to her for help. She knew she should say no, but it bothered her.”

Frank said he warned Waters to “stay out of it” and arranged to have his staff take over the OneUnited issue from Waters. The report does not detail whether she spoke with Frank before or after she set up the meeting with the Treasury Department. The California lawmaker has been under investigation since last year. The focus is on the purpose of the meeting Waters arranged.

Waters contends it was to help the bankers’ association and the 100 non-White owned firms it represents. The OCE, however, suggested that Waters was looking to benefit OneUnited Bank specifically.

The congresswoman accused the OCE of drawing negative inferences and of manipulating facts “to fit its faulty conclusions.” In a written statement from her offices, Waters said the charges against her stemmed from her efforts to help non-White communities in her state and nationally. She said the National Bankers Association requested a meeting with Treasury officials, and the meeting was not set up just to talk about OneUnited.

Waters said that this point was substantiated by a letter from the association to Treasury that was included in the OCE report. “I followed up on the association’s request by asking then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen to schedule such a meeting, as did other members of Congress. Secretary Paulsen recognized that the association’s concerns about the future of minority banks were valid and arranged for a meeting,” she said in the statement.

As with Rangel, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers will be formed to hear Waters’ case. It will probably take place in the fall, unless she and the committee reach an agreement.
Lawmakers, in the past, have accepted a reprimand (a private letter from Congress to the offending lawmaker) to settle cases. If a reprimand is not agreed upon, punishment can be as severe as censure (a public denouncing by congress of the offending lawmaker) and even expulsion from the house.

House ethics investigations and Black lawmakers
By David L. Horne, Ph.D.
OW Contributor

On the surface, the newly reformed House Ethics progress has targeted Black legislators, most prominently the two most influential Black Congresspersons–former House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, a 40-year member of Congress, and U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California, a veteran of more than 25 years in Congress. However, the highly publicized accusations of inappropriate conduct recently leveled against these two legendary lawmakers are both part of the process and the result of both lawmakers’ decisions to fight the charges.
In 2008, Nancy Pelosi led a House reform of the traditional Ethics Probe process. This was partially in response to the prior handling of investigations of former U.S. Congressman Tom Delay and others between 2005-2008. Pelosi then said that the independent board of six professional investigators and staff members, called the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), would help “drain the swamp” of Congressional corruption and vice. That office would hold a three-part series of investigations, from the preliminary 30-day scrutiny based on ‘reasonable cause to believe’ improprieties had occurred, to a 30-45 -day second stage based on a ‘probable cause to believe’ wrongdoing had occurred, to the final third stage based on a ‘substantial reason to believe allegations of improprieties’ occurred.

At this point, the OCE recommends an official probe by the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, otherwise called the House Ethics Committee (HEC). The OEC does an official report and releases it to the public. The Pelosi reform then is the new OEC and the transparency in reporting investigations of House members and staffers. The latter acts as pressure on the House Ethics Committee to thoroughly investigate and punish legislative wrongdoers, as opposed to–what happened in the past–too many former instances of quietly dropping all charges and accusations against House members and essentially sealing the investigative documents.

The HEC is a 10-member group of five Democrats and five Republicans, with Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, as chair during this 111th Congress. During the previous 110th Congress, CBC member Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (2007-2008) was the chair and the lone Black member of the HEC. She died in an auto accident in 2008. Currently, there are no African Americans on the HEC, and as far as could be ascertained, none on the OEC.

After completing its own investigation, the HEC can decide to dismiss charges, reprimand a legislator, publicly censure a congressperson or vote to expel that legislator. To date, only Congresspersons Rangel and Waters are up for the last two punishments, even though the OEC has recommended full investigations of more than 45 members of Congress, and still has at least 15 second-stage investigations pending. These latter include Nancy Pelosi herself, based on a March House resolution, three other Democrats, including CBCer Mel Watt of Georgia, and five Republicans.

Many current Congresspersons literally hate the new process, and the CBC has taken a joint position that its members are disproportionately targeted for investigation. The CBC has even sponsored a recent bill by Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to shut down the OEC and reformulate the ethics process. Speaker Pelosi, however, has blocked that bill, saying the system is working.

One noticeable fact is that many of the Republicans who face OEC investigations and the threat of public disclosure of impropriety, choose quick resignation from Congress rather than face potential embarrassment. Such was the case of Republican Eric Massa, accused of sexual misconduct with congressional pages, interns and staff members, Republican Nathan Deal of Georgia, and Indiana’s Mark Souder, all three of whom resigned in 2010. Both Waters and Rangel have refused to resign or admit any wrongdoing, and have opted for an open trial in the House of Representatives to clear their names, probably in September after the Congressional summer break.

Historical ethics probes
Black politicians have been caught up many times

By Marisol Aguilar
OW College Intern

As Representatives Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Charles Rangel, D-NewYork, find themselves under scrutiny for allegedly violating the Congressional code of ethics, a review of Black political history finds that these are two high-ranking leaders are just the latest in a growing list to face this situation.

In fact, one of the first African American politicians to be criticized for violating the honorable code of ethics was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He was the first person elected to Congress from New York of African American descent. Powell represented the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City in the United States House of Representatives between 1945 and 1971. He was criticized for mismanagement of the committee budget, taking trips abroad at public expense and missing sittings of his committee.

Here are a few Congress members who were accused or convicted of violating the code of ethics:
Mel Watt: A democratic member of the United States House of Representatives since 1993. He represents North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District. He is currently under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) for fundraising immediately before voting on the 2009 financial regulatory reform bill. The OCE is also investigating an amendment he sponsored to the financial regulatory legislation. The amendment would have put auto dealers who provide car financing, under the oversight of the proposed finance industry watchdog, but two days after the representative’s fundraiser, he withdrew his amendment making auto dealers exempt from oversight. As of June 25, 2010, the OCE extended their investigation into a second stage to continue fact finding.

Gregory Meeks: A Democratic member of the House since 1998. He represents New York’s 6th Congressional District. He is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice and because of a so-called “sweetheart deal” he allegedly received on a home he built in Queens. According to news sources, he is one of several Queens politicians a federal grand jury is investigating. The Daily News reported that the grand jury subpoenaed documents related to Meeks house. On April 13, Rep. Meeks announced on the House floor he had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.

Maxine Waters: Is a 10-term member of Congress. A democrat, California’s 35th Congressional District since 1991. Rep. Waters is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee and OCE for allegedly arranging a meeting between officials at the Department of Treasury and OneUnited Bank, an institution with which her husband has close financial ties. As a result of the meeting OneUnited Bank got a $12 million bailout. Her husband, Sidney Williams, was once a member of the bank’s board of directors and substantial his investments in the bank. In October 2009, the House ethics committee established a subcommittee to investigate Waters. She was found to have violated three counts of House rules and federal law. Waters is denying this and plans to fight the charges through a public hearing.

Charles Rangel: A 20-term member of Congress representing New York’s 15th District. Rep. Rangel is currently under investigation for improperly leasing four rent controlled apartments; improperly using Congressional stationery; failing to report rental income from a vacation property; and trading legislative assistance for contributions to the Rangel Center at City College.
Jesse Jackson Jr.: An eight-term member of Congress, representing Illinois’ 2nd District, Rep. Jackson is currently under investigation by the OCE for his bid to be appointed to a vacant Illinois Senate seat.

In 2008, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents for what was described at the time as a “political corruption crime spree.” One of the central allegations against the governor was that he attempted to sell an appointment to the Senate seat vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama. The Department of Justice has interviewed Rep. Jackson and subpoenaed individuals with knowledge of Rep. Jackson’s alleged effort to raise funds for Gov. Blagojevich. If this can be proven, Rep. Jackson may be guilty of violating an Illinois bribery law. He has denied any wrongdoing and says he is cooperating with both investigations.

Laura Richardson: A two-term member of Congress, representing California’s 37th Congressional District, is currently under investigation for accepting favorable loans and also for her failure to properly report a loan on her financial disclosure statements.

According to a report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, In May 2008, Rep. Richardson’s Sacramento home was sold in foreclosure. She claimed that this happened without her knowledge and contrary to an agreement with her lender. She had failed to make mortgage payments on the property for nearly a year and had defaulted on other home loans as well. Rep. Richardson also failed to include the mortgage on her Sacramento home on her personal financial disclosure statements. According to press reports, Rep. Richardson has defaulted on loans at least eight times on properties she owns in Long Beach, San Pedro and Sacramento. She also failed to pay approximately $9,000 in property taxes on the Sacramento residence. At the same time Richardson was missing payments and failing to pay her taxes, in June and July of 2007, she made three loans to her Congressional campaign totaling $77,500.

Roland Burris: is a first-term senator from Illinois, appointed by former Governor Rod Blagojevich to the U.S. Senate in December 2008 to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of then President-elect Barack Obama. He is currently under investigation for the circumstances surrounding his appointment. According to a conversation between Sen. Burris and the former governor’s brother Rob Blagojevich, which was captured on a federal wiretap, Sen. Burris mentions his interest in the Senate seat and potentially raising money for the governor. Federal perjury charges still lie.

William Jefferson: Served as a Democratic member of the House for nine terms 1991 to 2009. He represented Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District. He was sentenced to 13 years for bribery, after a corruption investigation. This is the longest sentence ever handed down to a Congressman for bribery.

On June 4, 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Jefferson on 16 charges related to corruption. In 2009, he was tried in Virginia on corruption charges and on Aug. 5, 2009, he was found guilty of 11 of the 16 corruption counts. He was sentenced in 2009.

John Conyers: A member of the House, who represents Michigan’s 14th Congressional District was under investigation due to complaints, released by the House Ethics Committee and made by his aides who alleged that their former boss repeatedly forced them to serve as his personal servants, valets, and as campaign staff while on the government payroll. In December 2006, Conyers “accepted responsibility” for his wrong doings.

Alcee Hastings: A Democrat member of the House representing Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, who served as a federal judge from 1979-89 but was impeached and removed from office accused of corruption and perjury. He was the sixth federal judge to be impeached and removed from office in American history.

In 1981, he was charged with accepting a $150,000 bribe, in exchange for a lenient sentence and a return of seized assets to accused racketeers Frank and Thomas Romano, and of perjury in his testimony about the case.

In 1988, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him for bribery and perjury by a vote of 413-3, and this was followed by a conviction by the Senate in 1989. Although he filed a lawsuit challenging the jurisdiction of the Congress of his case, he lost. In 1992, Hastings would be elected to serve in the very body that had earlier tried him.