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Ethics lawyer gets more time to investigate Maxine Waters case

December 16, 2011 |  5:04 pm

MaxineThe House Ethics Committee has given an outside lawyer more time to examine whether the committee’s staff acted improperly in investigating allegations of misconduct against veteran Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), further delaying an inquiry that could cost taxpayers as much as $800,000.

The bipartisan panel voted unanimously to give Washington lawyer Billy Martin until July 31, if needed, to assist the committee in its handling of the Waters case. His review of the staff’s actions, expected to be completed within a few months, will guide the committee’s decision on whether to pursue a case against Waters.

Waters, a South Los Angeles political fixture since the 1970s, has been accused of intervening on behalf of a bank where her husband owned stock and served on the board. The long-running case against her has been sidetracked once by the committee’s decision to put off a trial to conduct further investigation and again by allegations of misconduct against the staff.

The case has taken on greater importance for Waters, who is in line to succeed retiring Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. She could face a challenge for the coveted leadership post if she remains under a cloud. Waters, 73, has denied wrongdoing.

The committee’s goal, its leaders said in a statement Friday, has been "to resolve this matter as expeditiously as possible, but due to unavoidable delays, additional time is needed for outside counsel to complete his initial review and report his findings and conclusions to the full committee, which will then determine whether the matter should proceed.’’

Waters’ chief of staff, Mikael Moore, said, "It is important to remember that the task of Billy Martin is to first review the committee’s misconduct, a task that has not been completed. The House and the American people should be concerned, as we are, that the extent of the committee’s misconduct and the erosion of Rep. Waters’ due process rights may be so pervasive that it may take special counsel more than a year to review the extent of the committee’s wrongdoing.’’

Martin has examined "tens of thousands of pages of documents, interviewed numerous witnesses, and conducted extensive legal research," but needs more time to complete his review, according to the statement from the panel’s Republican chairman, Jo Bonner of Alabama, and top Democrat Linda T. Sanchez of Lakewood.

Martin’s firm, which has received $300,000, could receive as much as another $500,000, but committee members hope he will complete his work at less cost.

In hiring Martin last July, committee leaders cited “serious allegations” made about the committee's conduct. Memos last year from the committee's staff director and chief counsel at the time, Blake Chisam, accused two staff members who worked on the Waters investigation of unauthorized communications with Republican committee members.

Bonner told the staff members, who moved on to other jobs, that he had determined their actions to be “consistent with the highest ethical standards.”

Waters came under scrutiny for calling then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson to set up a September 2008 meeting between his staff and representatives of minority-owned banks during the financial crisis.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that referred the case to the Ethics Committee, said the discussion at the meeting “centered on a single bank, 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 the meeting.

Three months after the meeting, OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout funds, which as of last week had yet to be repaid.

Waters has defended her efforts as in keeping with her longtime work to promote opportunity for minority-owned businesses and lending in underserved communities.

-- Richard Simon in Washington

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PHOTO: Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. speaks during a Febryary, 2011 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit: Associated Press / Manuel Balce Ceneta 

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