What do Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Laura Richardson (D-CA), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Charlie Rangel (D-NY) have in common?
As well as Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS)? And former Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA)?
All are current or former members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
They share something else, too. All mentioned above either had or currently have issues before the House Ethics Committee. In the case of Jefferson, he’s serving a 13 year prison sentence for accepting bribes, the longest sentence ever meted out to a Member of Congress.
For Charlie Rangel, an original member of the CBC, the ethics panel found the Harlem Democrat guilty of failing to pay taxes on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, faulted him for the misappropriation of Congressional resources for private purposes and hit the Congressman for the use of four, rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan. The entire House overwhelmingly voted to censure Rangel in the fall of 2010.
For the rest, ethics investigators are at varying levels of inquest. They’re probing the conduct of these lawmakers about a litany of issues which range from questionable real estate transactions to allegations of sexual harassment. There are currently 434 members of the House. There are 43 members of the CBC. So what are the odds that either the House Ethics Committee or the quasi-governmental Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) could launch either formal or informal investigations into so many members of one subset?
It should be noted that the House Ethics Committee has not yet decided whether it will consider or dismiss a possible case against Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL). Buchanan is alleged to have failed to fully disclose income on his Congressional financial disclosure reports over a three year period. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) confirmed two weeks ago that the OCE was conducting a preliminary inquiry into whether the chairman of the Financial Services Committee may have made stock trades based on “insider” market intelligence.
Both Buchanan and Bachus are white.
In November, 2011, the House Ethics Committee triggered a formal investigation into alleged misdeeds by Laura Richardson. It marked the second time Richardson has come under scrutiny in the past two years. Ethics investigators are determining whether Richardson broke House rules by compelling her aides to do pro bono work on her 2010 presidential campaign and whether she used government resources for political purposes.
The NFL is now looking into whether the New Orleans Saints offered “bounties” to injure players from opposing teams. With such a high percentage of members facing scrutiny from the ethics panels, the CBC is wondering if there’s a bounty on the heads of its members, too.
In fact, several CBC members specifically tried to curb the OCE after observing the high numbers of their own with cases before the ethics watchdogs.
In 2010, CBC member Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) introduced a resolution to scale back the OCE’s power. All 19 of Fudge’s co-sponsors were affiliated with the CBC.
“OCE is currently the accuser, judge and jury,” Fudge said in a statement.
But Fudge’s resolution died in committee.
Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) is another CBC member who found himself in the ethics spotlight in 2009. Watt and several other lawmakers were accused of holding questionable fundraisers with financial groups around the same time the House considered legislation important to that industry. The OCE later dropped the case and never referred anything to the Ethics Committee.
Last summer, Watt crafted an amendment to shave 40 percent off the OCE’s $1.5 million budget. At the time, Watt declared that “the OCE processes have been unfair, undemocratic and they have singled people out.”
The House ultimately voted to maintain the OCE’s funding, torpedoing Watt’s amendment 302-102. But nearly a quarter of those who voted with Watt were African American.
So the question is whether the Capitol Hill ethics process is truly colorblind?
“If you went to a mathematician, what are the chances?” asked CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) after the start of the Richardson inquiry. “I get the sense that every time a case pops up, there’s the connotation there may be a racial tone to it.”
But Cleaver doesn’t think there’s funny business going on – even if things appear funny when it comes to CBC members.
“Until I can get some proof that people are meeting and trying to do African Americans in, I’m not ready to declare that there’s a widespread conspiracy aimed at doing damage to African American members of Congress,” Cleaver said.
But Laura Richardson sees it differently. She first played the favoritism card when the Ethics Committee initiated its formal probe of her conduct.
“The (Ethics) Committee has chosen to unjustly target its investigations on certain Members, while overlooking the well-publicized misuse of official House resources for personal purposes by numerous other Members of Congress,” Richardson said in a statement. “Numerous Members have used their House offices for personal lodging, in some cases for years, saving tens of thousands of dollars personally at taxpayers’ expense. Under House rules, personal use of House resources is as impermissible as political use. Accordingly, I will raise this issue with the Ethics Committee.”
And then Richardson played both the race and gender card.
“I also intend to explore the issue of whether the Ethics Committee has engaged in discriminatory conduct in pursuing two investigations against me while simultaneously failing to apply the same standards to or take the same actions against other Members—of whom the overwhelming majority are white males,” Richardson said.
No one else has gone as far as Richardson when contending racial bias by the Ethics Committee or the OCE. But the majority of open cases or full blown probes involving African American lawmakers is significant when compared to the number of inquiries associated with white members.
When Democrats controlled the House, Alcee Hastings co-chaired the Helsinki Commission which deals with European security issues. Helsinki Commission employee Winsome Packer alleged that Hastings sexually harassed her and said that her superiors failed to take her complaints seriously. Packer later sued Hastings. A federal judge recently dismissed Packer’s case. To date, the Ethics Committee hasn’t formally closed the door on the probe involving the Florida Democrat. As first reported by Politico, the House’s General Counsel Kerry Kircher wrote to the Justice Department’s Civil Division to clarify what may have unfolded between Hastings and Parker.
In the missive, Kircher states that Packer “grossly distorts the events and circumstances in order to support a fiction that she experienced unlawful sexual harassment.” The letter adds that Packer made “assertions that are factually accurate, but are taken out of context.”
But Hastings’ case remains alive for the moment before the Ethics Committee.
Perhaps the most convoluted ethics case involving a CBC member is that of Maxine Waters.
In the summer of 2010, the Ethics Committee formally empanelled an investigative subcommittee to review Waters’ conduct. The creation of an investigative subcommittee is the Congressional equivalent of an indictment. The Ethics Committee questioned whether Waters used her position in Congress to help secure federal bailout money for the Boston-based OneUnited Bank. Waters husband served on the bank’s board of directors. In addition, Waters’ family still owns stock in the bank.
Waters balked when the Ethics Committee graduated to the official investigative stage. But after months of inquiry, problems arose. The Ethics Committee suspended two staffers who may have mishandled documents tied to ethics cases. Those aides, Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign, no longer work for the Ethics Committee. Meanwhile, Waters has twisted in the wind for a year and a half. The Ethics Committee hired independent counsel Billy Martin to assist with closing the case. In late February, Martin recommended that the Ethics Committee start all over again with the Waters inquiry.
Martin said he saw no evidence that the Ethics Committee tainted its own investigation. But Martin indicated it would be best to wipe the slate clean and begin again. The Ethics Committee agreed and described this as an “extraordinary” step.
So Waters is essentially back where she was in the summer of 2010 when the committee initiated the probe.
Around the same time in the summer of 2010, Charlie Rangel seized the House floor to take what is called a “point of personal privilege.” Points of personal privilege are special moments reserved for lawmakers who believe their motives have been impugned or that the House has undercut their rights as a lawmaker. To be clear, Rangel, and nearly all Congressional Black Caucus members who have had issues before the OCE or Ethics Committee have said little about race being a factor. But during his point of personal privilege, Rangel gave all of his House colleagues a stark warning about the ethics process.
“Don’t let this happen to you. Not all of you would be able to withstand it,” Rangel said. “If it doesn’t work for me, it may not work for you.”
That’s something the CBC is watching. Will the ethics process “work” for Maxine Waters? Will it “work” for Laura Richardson? How about for Jesse Jackson, Jr., Gregory Meeks and Alcee Hastings?
And will the ethics process “work” for two lawmakers who aren’t members of the Congressional Black Caucus: Vern Buchanan and Spencer Bachus? And that’s to say nothing of Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) who is enduring a campaign contributions scandal of his own.
Neither the OCE nor Ethics Committee have yet to weigh in on Grimm.
One Congressional source who asked for suggested that Congressional leaders have done a better job at “protecting” non-CBC members from ethics inquiries than they have with those who are members. The source alleged that the Congressional leadership left CBC members to fend for themselves when ethics watchdogs were on the prowl.
The Ethics Committee and the full House already chastened Charlie Rangel for his transgressions. People are watching to see if other CBC members are punished for their conduct – especially if similar discipline isn’t handed down for white lawmakers.
If that’s the case, CBC members are sure to heed Rangel’s words from 2010. Rangel didn’t think the ethics process worked for him. And CBC members could echo Rangel if they feel they haven’t gotten their due, either.