House Ethics Charges Put Democrats In Tight Spot

Last week, a House ethics panel outlined 13 charges of House rules violations against long-term Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel. Now, the panel has charged Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters. Both are denying any wrongdoing and appear headed for full-blown "trials" before their peers in September. And that puts the House leadership in a tight spot: The last thing leaders want is a spotlight on Democratic wrongdoing right before the November election.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

For the second time in as many weeks, a House Democrat is facing charges of ethics violations. Like New York Democrat Charlie Rangel, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters is opting to face those allegations in a public committee trial rather than settle behind closed doors.

And that decision puts Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus in a tough spot, as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Congresswoman Maxine Waters is a high-ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee. The question is whether during the financial crisis, she violated House ethics rules in getting Treasury officials to help a bank where her husband had served on the board and where he still owned stock.

In a written statement today, Congresswoman Waters says she has not violated any House rules, and that she has chosen to respond to the House ethics charges in a public hearing.

Waters had said that she disclosed her husband's connection to the bank at the time her committee was writing the bailout bill. And last fall, she told NPR that she and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus are prepared for scrutiny.

Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): It's a part of what we confront. When we're in this business, we do a lot of disclosure. We are open to all of the press and everybody who can look at us, and we're in a fishbowl and that's okay. As long as you're confident that you're not doing anything wrong, you can handle it.

CORNISH: The allegations could mean there would be two ethics trials in the fall, right as voters start tuning in for midterm elections.

Mr. NATHAN GONZALEZ (Political Editor, The Rothenberg Political Report): That's a recipe for disaster. I mean, that's what Republicans got tripped up on in the Mark Foley scandal prior to the 2006 elections.

CORNISH: That's Nathan Gonzales, an editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. He says the key for Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is to stop the drip, drip of ethics news into fall.

Yesterday, Pelosi said on ABC's "This Week" that the ethics process is working.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): When I came in, I said we're draining the swamp. And we did. We have passed the most sweeping ethics reform in the history of the Congress. Any personal respect and affection we may have for people makes us sad about the course of events, but we have to pull the high ethical standard, and none of our personalities is more important than that.

CORNISH: The Congressional Black Caucus has long been at odds with Pelosi's new Office of Congressional Ethics or OCE, and questioning whether its caucus has been singled out for scrutiny.

Ron Walters, retired professor of the University of Maryland, also studies black politics.

Dr. RON WALTERS (Director, African American Leadership Center, University of Maryland): The swamp is largely white in both the House and the Senate. And when the swamp yields up and you try to clean it, it only yields up two blacks. There's this suspicion there that something else has happened, that there's considerable bias in the process.

CORNISH: Back in June, 19 members of the caucus signed a resolution calling for changes to the OCE. And other lawmakers have grumbled about the way the office has made reports available on lawmakers, even in changes where the accusations are dismissed.

But Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center says that claims that the office is running amok are not true.

Ms. MEREDITH McGEHEE (Policy Director, Campaign Legal Center): I do think that it's really not a question of the CBC being targeted.

CORNISH: She says this is more about powerful incumbents in safe districts.

Ms. McGEHEE: They don't have the same kind of pressures on them. And they're able to go for years really without the same degree of accountability than if you're in a very competitive race.

CORNISH: And if Rangel and Waters don't reach a settlement, they'll face a jury of their peers in the fall.

Audie Cornish NPR News, the Capitol.

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