August 13, 2010

Timing is everything.

After sitting dormant for more than a decade, the House Ethics Committee has roared to life by holding two of the most senior members’ feet to the fire for some pretty serious ethical violations. But one has to wonder — why is the committee acting only now?

To be clear, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) are in a mess of their own making, and the Ethics Committee is right to charge them. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has long argued that both these members need to be held accountable for their misconduct, should they be found to have committed these violations.

But policing Congress and making sure members of both parties behave in an ethical manner should be an apolitical affair. By holding ethics hearings this fall, right before the midterm election, the ethics process looks political. That serves no one’s interest.

Let’s examine what we know, and when we knew it. In September 2008, Rangel himself asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate the numerous allegations of ethical violations swirling around him all summer — that he had been improperly soliciting donations for the City College of New York’s aptly named Rangel Center, using official congressional letterhead.

The congressman had also failed to pay taxes on rental income from a Dominican Republic villa; maintained four rent-controlled apartments, one used as a campaign office, and submitted numerous error-ridden personal financial disclosure reports.

As for Waters, during the fiscal meltdown at the end of the Bush administration, she used her influence to reach out to then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and demand TARP funding for OneUnited, a bank in which her husband had a financial interest. What’s more, she appointed her grandson, who doubles as her chief of staff, as the point person on this issue.

Treasury officials were reportedly fuming in March 2009, when they learned of Waters’ financial interest in OneUnited. As far as cases go, this is not complicated. Waters appears to have abused her position to advance her personal financial interest. The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) agreed, and referred the matter on to the Ethics Committee in June of last year.

Given that the Ethics Committee was made aware of Rangel’s violations no later than September 2008 and Waters’ by June 2009, why is the committee making its findings public now?

To avoid politicization, the Ethics Committee does not accept complaints within 60 days of an election. Rangel’s and Waters’ ethics hearings, which cannot start before mid-September at the earliest, are certain to extend into this 60-day window and will undoubtedly effect the midterm elections.

With control of the House likely up for grabs, some — including Rangel — have said that Republicans on the Ethics Committee have refused to reach a settlement with Rangel specifically because of a desire to focus national attention on Democrats’ ethics problems and so gain an edge in the election.

But the politicization of the ethics process jeopardizes its legitimacy and undermines its credibility. In the 1990s, ethics charges were filed simply to score political points. In an effort to step back, both parties agreed to a truce, and no ethics complaints were filed.

This left members largely unaccountable — no matter how egregious their conduct. It led to the scandals involving former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, moving ethics back to the front burner.

Intentional or not, releasing charges against Rangel and Waters so close to the mid-terms lends credence to those who assert that the charges are political. The timing undermines the Ethics Committee’s already weak credibility, and jeopardizes the legitimacy of the ethics process. As a result, we may see members reluctant to buy in to a process they view as a politically motivated. Already, we have heard members of both parties call for the OCE to be dismantled, or at least to have its (limited) power severely reduced.

No organization has called more loudly than CREW for Rangel and Waters to answer for their conduct. In fact, many other members — including Reps. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) — should similarly be called out for misconduct.

But in a world where timing is everything, the timing of these hearings does not serve the interests of justice — or the American people.

Melanie Sloan is CREW’s Executive Director. This post was cross-posted on