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Capitalizing on a Politician's Clout

The husband, daughter and son of Rep. Maxine Waters have business links to people the influential lawmaker has aided.

December 19, 2004|Chuck Neubauer and Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writers

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters' family members have made more than $1 million in the last eight years by doing business with companies, candidates and causes that the influential congresswoman has helped.

In varied ways, they have capitalized on clout she accumulated in a 28-year career as an elected official who built her power base among African Americans in South Los Angeles into a national platform.

Daughter Karen Waters has charged candidates for spots on her mother's "slate mailer," a sample ballot that many voters in South Los Angeles use to guide their choices.

She also has been paid by a nonprofit organization she and her mother set up, funded in part by special interests her mother helps in Washington, that throws parties her mother hosts at Democratic conventions.

Waters' husband has collected fees for opening doors with his wife's political allies on behalf of a bond firm seeking government business.

Son Edward Waters has shared in the slate mailer proceeds and has occasionally worked as a consultant to campaigns his mother supported.

The Waterses are a twist on a growing and unregulated trend in which relatives of members of Congress are paid by people receiving the members' help at home, in Washington or, in some cases, abroad. Over the last year and a half, The Times has identified five House members and seven senators whose family members have worked for clients that benefited from the lawmakers' official actions.

They included two sons and a son-in-law of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the newly named minority leader, who in 2002 introduced legislation to free up public land in Nevada that benefited their lobbying clients.

In another case, the daughter of U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) wound up with $1 million worth of contracts as a rookie lobbyist, while her father tried to use his office to help her clients, including a struggling Russian aerospace company seeking U.S. contracts to build a flying saucer.

The practice has accelerated as tougher ethics laws make it harder to offer favors directly to members of Congress.

The Waters family is a variation on this theme, making money not only because of Waters' power in Washington but because of the way she uses her local political clout.

Rep. Waters said her family's business interests are separate from her congressional activities and declined to do a detailed interview for this article.

"They do their business, and I do mine," she said in a brief exchange, referring reporters to her relatives for information about their business activities.

The congresswoman's husband, Sidney Williams, 62, said his wife discloses the names of his clients in public reports as the law requires. Beyond that, he said, "You can't ask me anything about my business."

Karen Waters, 46, spoke only briefly, saying that she does public relations work for politicians and causes, that "Maxine Waters is one of my clients" and that they keep their business dealings at arm's length. Edward Waters, 49, declined to be interviewed.

Each was provided with detailed written questions, which went unanswered. "We don't have to answer your questions," Rep. Waters said, adding: "We are not bad people."

Close ties between elected officials' activities and their family members' financial interests are not uncommon, nor are they specifically prohibited by congressional ethics rules or state campaign laws. Still, for some, such conduct raises concerns.

"It looks like congresswoman Waters is using her position to financially benefit her family members, and that is at the very least unethical," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. "You shouldn't be making money off your mother's endorsements."

Not everyone disapproves. "She takes care of her kids, and what's wrong with that?" asked Larry Levine, a political consultant in California who charges candidates to appear in his own slate mailer and whose son, Lloyd, is a state assemblyman.


A Political Force

Waters has built a strong political base from the under-represented and disenfranchised with a trademark in-your-face style and attention to issues that affect minorities, the poor, women, children, AIDS patients and prisoners.

"She's got a special place in the hearts and minds of a lot of African Americans," said civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, former co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Los Angeles office. "She channels the fears and desires of the working-class and lower-class African American community. The only person who does it better is Jesse Jackson."

She has been a steady voice in Washington for poor nations, and Ms. magazine named her one of its 2004 Women of the Year for helping ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide find asylum in Jamaica.

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