Reporting from Washington — On the day her long-awaited ethics trial was supposed to begin, Los Angeles Rep. Maxine Waters stepped up an attack on the case against her.
"I have been denied basic due process," she said Monday, standing in front of the empty Capitol Hill room where her trial, now indefinitely delayed, was to take place.
Waters, a fiery South Los Angeles political fixture since the 1970s, said the delay, after an investigation that has gone on for nearly a year and a half, showed "in no uncertain terms the weakness of their case against me."
She criticized the House Ethics Committee, questioning "whether or not they bungled this case."
Waters, a member of the House committee that oversees banking, is accused of intervening improperly on behalf of OneUnited Bank. Her husband served on the board of OneUnited and owned stock in the bank.
The bank received $12 million in bailout funds three months after Waters 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. The bank hadn't repaid the money as of this month, according to the latest Treasury Department report.
Waters, 72, has defended her actions as in keeping with her work to aid minority-owned businesses. She has denied receiving any financial benefit from OneUnited, saying Monday: "No benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced, no case."
The Ethics Committee this month put off Waters' trial to investigate new evidence, which Waters said was a September 2008 e-mail sent by Waters' chief of staff and grandson Mikael Moore to the House Financial Services Committee inquiring about draft bailout legislation. Waters contends that the e-mail asking about "small bank language" shows her office was advocating for small banks in general, not any one institution.
"I want this issue resolved immediately," Waters said, calling on the committee to schedule her hearing before the end of the year, "and I want my constituents to know that the person they reelected with 80% of the vote on Nov. 2 is doing exactly what they sent her here to do — fight for them."
The House panel of eight lawmakers that would hear Waters' case — and the full 10-member Ethics Committee that would weigh any punishment — would be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Waters is concerned that she could face a more hostile hearing in January after Republicans take control of the House and the Ethics Committee chairmanship, according to a source close to her who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. Ethics Committee officials declined to respond to Waters' comments.
"The longer the committee investigates and this drags on, the worse it is for Congresswoman Waters," said Kenneth A. Gross, a Washington ethics lawyer.
But Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen said the delay "seems to be more a matter of fatigue by the Ethics Committee" after the ethics trial this month of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
The committee recommended that the House censure the 80-year-old congressman after finding him in violation of 11 counts, including failure to declare rental income from a Dominican villa, improper solicitation of donations on congressional letterhead and misuse of a rent-controlled Harlem apartment as a campaign office.
Waters said that although she was prepared to contest the charges against her, "the committee has denied me my opportunity to be heard. This type of behavior, lack of decency and professional decorum would not be accepted in a court of law, and it should not be accepted in the U.S. House of Representatives, the body responsible for making the laws."
She declined to discuss specifics of the case, telling reporters in the hallway, "I'm not going to try this case out here."