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Memo Offers Glimpse of a House Ethics Panel Rocked by Its Own Ethics Troubles

Update, 7/20: The House Ethics Committee announced today that it will investigate its own actions [PDF] in the case involving Rep. Maxine Waters. It has hired outside counsel to conduct an independent review. 


The House Ethics Committee has long been criticized for its slow-moving and opaque operations—a criticism that was underscored late last year, when two attorneys working on the case against Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters were suddenly suspended and the committee’s chief counsel resigned shortly thereafter.

Both moves were made with little explanation, leaving the public in the dark and the case against Waters in limbo. Partisan infighting and disputes over subpoenas were reportedly a problem, but details were scarce—not surprising given the committee’s secretive nature, which as we’ve noted typically keeps much of the committee’s activity hidden from public view.

But new documents obtained by Politico offer a glimpse of what went wrong. In one undated memo, Blake Chisam—the ethics committee’s top lawyer at the time—told Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren that the two staffers were suspended for misleading the committee and for communicating with some Republican committee members about evidence and witnesses in the case. Politico explains why this is problematic:

The Ethics Committee places strict limits on the sharing of evidence during “trials” for lawmakers; committee members act as prosecutors and lawmakers play the role of a jury.

Politico also reports that the same lawyers in turn accused Chisam of protecting Democrats and holding back evidence against Rep. Charles Rangel, who at the recommendation of the House ethics committee was formally censured by the full House of Representatives in December.

Neither Chisam nor the two lawyers still work for the committee, but it’s clear that the allegations of ethical lapses among the ethics investigators have not only thrown a wrench in the case against Waters, they’ve brought the entire committee to a standstill for the better part of a year. 

The ethics committee declined to comment on the matter, according to both Politico and the New York Times.

The panel has recently showed signs that it’s back in business. Late last month, it hired a slate of new staffers. And last week, it announced it would reopen the case against Rep. Eric Massa, the New York Democrat who resigned last year after he was accused of sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct with staffers.

Rep. Waters has called for the investigation against her to be closed, citing the alleged misconduct. Waters is accused of improperly helping a bank with financial ties to her husband get a meeting with Treasury officials, leading to the bank securing $12 million in bailout funds. She’s denied that she violated ethics rules, and Treasury has said Waters’ involvement didn’t affect its decision to dole out the money.

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