Rep. Maxine Waters defends herself during a news conference in August 2010. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)
Reporting from Washington — —The House Ethics Committee on Wednesday announced the hiring of an outside counsel to review the case against Rep. Maxine Waters and misconduct allegations against the committee staffers involved in investigating the veteran Los Angeles congresswoman.
The panel voted unanimously Tuesday night to hire Washington attorney Billy Martin.
"Serious allegations have been made about the committee's own conduct in this matter,'' the panel's Republican chairman Jo Bonner of Alabama and top Democrat, Linda Sanchez of California, said in a statement. "The committee has not taken these allegations lightly.''
Martin's hiring comes days after the disclosure of internal committee documents by Politico alleging that staff members working on the Waters' investigation had unauthorized contacts with Republican committee members and inappropriately withheld information from Waters' defense team. Waters, a Democrat, contends the revelations showed she cannot get a fair hearing from the panel.
Once the committee receives the findings of the investigation of its own staff's handling of the Waters' case, it will then decide whether to pursue the case against Waters, one of Los Angeles' most enduring African American politicians.
Waters has been accused of intervening on behalf of a bank where her husband owned stock and served on the board.
But the case against her, which grew out of an investigation that began two years ago, has been stalled by partisan strife within the committee, which operates largely in secret.
Earlier Wednesday, a coalition of government watchdog groups including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters called on the committee to bring in an outside counsel to complete the Waters' probe to ensure the investigation's credibility.
The committee hired outside counsels in 1988 and 1995 to investigate allegations of misconduct against House Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), saying it was necessary to assure the public that the probes would be fair and objective.
Waters, a high-ranking member of the House committee that oversees banking, came under scrutiny for calling then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson to set up a September 2008 meeting during the financial crisis between his staff and representatives of minority-owned banks. The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that referred the case to the House Ethics Committee, said the discussion at the meeting "centered on a single bank, OneUnited." Three months later, OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout funds.
The House Ethics Committee also accused Waters' chief of staff, Mikael Moore, who is also her grandson, of working to help the institution, even as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, urged Waters to "stay out of it" because of her husband's ties to the bank.
Waters, 72, has defended her actions, saying she didn't benefit financially and was acting on behalf of minority banks in general, not just OneUnited. Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, served on the OneUnited board from January 2004 to April 2008, and owned stock in the bank when Waters set up a September 2008 meeting between Treasury Department officials and representatives of minority-owned banks. The most recent financial disclosure report filed by Waters shows her husband's investment in the bank was valued at between $100,000 and $250,000 last year.
Delays in the case have drawn criticism from watchdog groups. Waters was due to go on trial before fellow House members last fall, but the case was put off to allow for further investigation after a new piece of information was discovered during preparation of a witness for the hearing.