Last year was particularly rough for House Democrats as the messy public ethics spectacles involving prominent Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel (NY) and Maxine Waters (CA) played out for all the world to see right in the waning months before a difficult and ultimately devastating election for Democrats.
Now that Republicans are in charge of the House, watchdogs are scrutinizing their every move, waiting for signs that they’re weakening the ethics standards or continuing Congress’s long history of slow-walking ethics cases and its seeming inability to impose tough sanctions on those who break the rules.
The Ethics Committee is known for its partisan eruptions, breakdowns and finger-pointing over high-profile cases, and there’s no sign of a cease-fire in sight.
And Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), the new chairmen of the panel, is already giving critics plenty of cause for concern.
After a series of delays in the Waters’ matters, the panel has yet to say how it will proceed, and the two House Ethics Committee attorneys accused of bungling the case were still on Congressional payroll as of January 31, three months after the previous panel’s chairwoman suspended them, according to an Ethics Committee report obtained by TPM.
The monthly report of the Ethics Committee’s activities for January, the latest available, lists Morgan Kim, the panel’s deputy chief counsel and the lead attorney on the Waters’ case, and Stacy Sovereign, who assisted on the case, as current employees along with the rest of the committee staff with no mention of their suspension and no asterisk or qualifier by their names.
Kim is listed as receiving $13,977 in monthly salary, amounting to an annual salary of roughly $167,700 and the highest of any current employee. Sovereign is listed as receiving $12,292, which amounts to roughly $147,500, the third highest paid.
Yet, no one will say whether the attorneys are still on administrative leave or have been reinstated as full-fledge working staffers. There has never been an investigation of their alleged misdeeds or any public airing of exactly what they did to earn the suspensions.
Bonner has declined to discuss the matter, and e-mails TPM sent to Kelle Strickland, his top counsel on the panel right now, were re-routed through his personal office press secretary Mike Lewis.
“I have been collecting press inquiries to pass along to the committee as they organize,” he said. “I will be glad to forward yours as well.”
The panel has had a tough time getting up and running in large part because it hasn’t hired a staff director and chief counsel. The monthly report on the committee’s activities, which is filed with the House Administration Committee, doesn’t list a staff director or chief counsel, and the panel is having a difficult time finding anyone qualified and willing to take the job, according to two House aides.
“Who would want it after everything that happened last year,” one aide remarked.
Blake Chisam, who previously held the job, resigned late last year after a series of partisan skirmishes and blunders culminating in him trying to fire Kim and Sovereign a week before Waters’ public trial, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 29.
Apparently, Kim and Sovereign discovered a new piece of critical evidence just one week before the trial, so the Ethics Committee was forced to indefinitely delay it. But the two attorneys, both of whom had clerked for Republican judges, also had repeatedly crossed swords with Chisam over just how hard to push the case against Waters.
Chisam and his boss, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who chaired the panel at the time, and the professional staff leading the investigations had been feuding for months with complaints and counter-complaints flung from each side. After Lofgren postponed the trial, she wanted to hire a special prosecutor to handle the case, but Bonner wanted to expand the case against Waters — at least as of late last year, House sources said.
That’s why there’s so much focus on whether Bonner will reinstate the attorneys or let them go. He may agree with their more hard-charging approach and want to keep them around to expand it.
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, is hardly surprised by the committee’s inactivity and ongoing problems. The situation shows just how necessary it is to keep the Office of Congressional Ethics intact, she said. Made up of mainly former members of Congress and created in 2008, the OCE conducts initial investigations and makes recommendations to the full Ethics Committee for further action.
“Obviously, it’s troubling any time you have this kind of suspended animation,” she said. “You don’t have a staff director, you already have a situation that took far too long with Rangel.. .. In the meantime, the American taxpayers are paying for staffers not to do anything. That’s a pretty sad statement — it deserves more explanation.”
“That’s why the OCE remains so important,” she added.
Lofgren, who chaired the panel last year, chose to leave the committee at the beginning of this Congress after two rocky years. It took Democrats weeks before they could find a replacement. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) agreed to accept the post at the end of January.
Sanchez, who played an integral role in leading the House Democrats’ investigation into the U.S. attorneys’ scandal during the Bush administration, is known for being a tough partisan so people are watching how she interacts with Bonner.
Two years ago Bonner and Lofgren touted their ability to work with one another, but the relationship deteriorated during the fights over the Rangel and Waters trials. Partisan tensions flared openly last summer when Bonner, in a public statement, accused Lofgren of stalling the trials until after the midterm elections for political purposes.
Waters is accused of intervening on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband owns stock and on whose board he’d previously sat. She has mounted a vigorous, detailed defense, arguing she was acting on behalf of all minority-owned banks, as she has done for other minority interests for years, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight it through a legal defense fund.