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Maxine Waters speaks out against ethics charges

She rebuts accusations that she used influence to aid a bank in which her husband had a financial interest.

August 14, 2010|By Richard Simon and Lisa Mascaro

Reporting from Washington —

In her most spirited defense against ethics charges, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) denied Friday that she had used her influence to aid a bank in which her husband has a financial interest, and attacked ethics investigators for drawing the wrong conclusion from her lifetime of work to aid minority-owned businesses.

"I won't cut a deal," Waters said in her first Capitol Hill news conference since charges were brought.

Her nearly hour-and-a-half response featured a PowerPoint presentation, led by her chief of staff, aimed at rebutting the charges. When it concluded, the words: "No Benefit, No Improper Action, No Failure to Disclose, No One Influenced: No Case" flashed on the screen.

The veteran of more than three decades in Sacramento and Washington politics has been accused of trying to help OneUnited Bank, on whose board her husband served and in which he owns stock. Unless she settles, she faces a rare public trial before a panel of her House colleagues.

Congressional ethics cases have historically unfolded in a highly secretive manner, but Waters, 71, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is also facing ethics charges in an unrelated case, have refused to wait quietly for their trials. Both have decided to fight for their reputations, interjecting a measure of political risk as Democrats struggle to hold onto control of the House this fall.

Rangel, 80, upset members of his own party by taking the House floor this week to plead for a swift resolution. Friday, Waters let loose with not only a defense but also sharp criticism of the ethics investigation, as Ethics Committee staffers watched on C-SPAN from their offices.

"Neither my staff nor I engaged in any improper behavior, and we did not influence anyone, and we did not gain any benefit," she said.

Waters, the senior black member on the House committee that oversees banking, acknowledged that she called then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson during the financial crisis to set up a September 2008 meeting between his staff and representatives of minority-owned banks. Three months later, OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout funds that it has yet to repay.

"Congresswoman Waters did not arrange a meeting for OneUnited," Waters said. "Congresswoman Waters called Secretary Paulson to arrange a meeting for a trade association" representing minority-owned banks. "This is what I do," she added, citing her "life's work" in trying to promote minority-owned businesses.

"Our work has been consistent throughout the history of my career. We have committed no violations," Waters continued. "I, as an African American woman, must be aware of what I can do to open up the system to everybody."

The Office of Congressional Ethics has said the discussion at the meeting, however, "centered on a single bank — OneUnited."

The House Ethics Committee also has accused Waters' chief of staff, who is her grandson, of working to help OneUnited, even as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, urged Waters to "stay out of it" because of her husband's ties to the bank. Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, served on the bank board from January 2004 through April 2008 and owns 3,500 shares of the bank's stock.

Waters said that once she became aware that Massachusetts-based OneUnited was seeking federal help, she bowed out and told bank officials that they should speak to Frank and the committee.

"We said, 'If this is about OneUnited … you talk to them, I'm out of it,'" she said.

Unless Waters settles, she will be tried by an eight-member panel of House colleagues, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. As in a court trial, witnesses can be subpoenaed. But there is no witness stand, and it is called an adjudicatory hearing rather than a trial.

Evidence can be presented. The House Ethics Committee's legal staff will present the case against Waters. Waters' defense is expected to be led by Stan Brand, a former counsel to the House and an ethics expert.

Waters has asked for a trial before the November election. The panel, which will deliberate behind closed doors, must decide whether the allegations have been proven "by clear and convincing evidence," a determination that experts say is a stronger burden than the "preponderance of evidence" standard of a civil case but a lighter burden than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of a criminal case.

If the panel finds, by a majority vote, that a violation occurred, it will be up to the full Ethics Committee to recommend a punishment. The committee can issue a sort of scolding in writing. Or it can recommend more severe punishment, including reprimand, censure or expulsion, which require the approval of the full House.

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