House Republicans had hoped to use the election-season ethics trials of Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to hammer Democrats for failing to stop corruption, but there are increasing signs that the trials may be postponed until after Election Day.
The ethics committee met on Wednesday, the first time the panel has assembled since the August break, but announced no decision on a schedule for the Rangel or Waters trials.
Sources familiar with the ethics process said both trials might be pushed off until a lame duck session in November or possibly even into the 112th Congress, which convenes in January.
And while their ethics trials get kicked down the road, Rangel and Waters are enjoying new political life, with Rangel winning a Democratic primary this week while Waters is loudly proclaiming her innocence, even passing out buttons and putting up posters saying the ethics committee has “no case.”
Waters’s and Rangel’s offices declined to comment about the ethics trials.
House insiders caution that no final decisions have been made on the ethics trials, and the committee could quickly kick into gear and schedule a trial within a few weeks, though that appears unlikely.
The lack of movement on these two high-profile cases has led Republicans to accuse Democrats of “slow-walking” the Rangel and Waters hearings in order to protect themselves from further damage from the scandals.
“If the ethics committee does not act before Election Day, it would certainly create the impression that Democrats are slow-walking these trials for political gain,” said a senior House GOP aide.
The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group that has played a role in the probe of Rangel and other House Democrats, said any delay in the hearings until the post-election period will show Democrats are “insincere” in their efforts to fight corruption. The Rangel scandal began in the summer of 2008, thus, a postponement of the proceedings until after Nov. 2 would mean the New York Democrat has gone through two elections with the case still unfolding.
“Earlier this year, when [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer were asked about the high-profile ethics cases against Rangel and others, they claimed that the probes were evidence of the Democrats’ commitment to ethics,” the NLPC said. “If the cases of Rangel and Rep. Maxine Waters are put off to spare the Democrats political damage just before the election, this claim will be proven to be insincere.”
Republican aides were also quick to point out that Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the ethics committee, recently contributed $50,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — a sign that she’s focused on helping keep a Democratic majority. Democrats insisted there was no link between the potential delay in the trails and a Pelosi fundraiser for Lofgren, pointing out that the speaker has held events for other California Democrats.
Waters has been extremely vocal in urging the ethics committee to move forward with her trial before the election. Waters also recently set up a legal defense fund to help her cover the cost of attorney fees from the probe.
But sources close to the California Democrat said there is no sign the ethics panel is preparing for a pre-election trial. The ethics committee is continuing to interview witnesses and gather other information on the Waters matter, including deposing her former aides.
Waters has been hit with three ethics violations related to actions she and her top aide, Mikael Moore, took in September and October 2008 on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband owned stock.
Waters is accused of setting up a meeting with top Treasury Department officials and representatives of OneUnited as the U.S. financial system was collapsing. Kevin Cohee, chairman and CEO of OneUnited, and a Waters associate, used that session to ask for $50 million in emergency funding from Treasury. Sidney Williams, Waters’s husband, owned OneUnited stock worth roughly $350,000 at that time.
OneUnited later received $12 million in funding via the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but only after the bank got a large capital infusion from another institution.
A bipartisan investigative subcommittee found that Waters and Moore had violated House ethics rules. Waters, though, has refused to admit to any violation and has mounted a PR blitz against the panel.
With the Congressional Black Caucus holding a legislative conference in Washington this week, Waters has been putting up posters and circulating postcards and buttons about her ethics case.
“No improper actions, no benefit, no failure to disclose, NO CASE!” declares the Waters’s postcard being circulated at the CBC event.
Rangel has been hit with 13 ethics charges, including allegations that he improperly solicited money from corporate officials and lobbyists for the Charles B. Rangel Public Policy Center in New York; failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars of income and assets on financial disclosure forms; maintained multiple rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury Harlem apartment building; and failed to pay income taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic.
Despite protracted settlement talks, Rangel opted for an ethics trial. But the negotiations slowed the case, and the New York Democrat was able to push those proceedings past the Sept. 14 primary in the Empire State. Rangel handily won that contest despite his long-running ethics problems, making him a virtual lock to win a 21st term on Election Day in his heavily Democratic Harlem district.
There had been speculation that Rangel and the ethics committee would settle the case if he survived the primary, though no negotiations are taking place at this time, said several sources close to the case.
Another issue that could slow down the case is a report in Roll Call earlier this week that Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the subcommittee overseeing the Rangel trial, failed to disclose fully stock transactions worth millions as part of his annual financial disclosure reports in 2008-09.
While McCaul has denied any wrongdoing, the issue could further complicate the Rangel proceedings.