Ethics Cases Raise Racial Questions

John Bresnahan and Jonathan Allen, Politico, August 1, 2010

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The controversy over the cases and the prospect of the first simultaneous ethics trials for multiple members in more than 30 years mark the biggest challenge for the ethics committee’s and the House’s ability to police its own members since the mid-1990s, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and leaders from both parties found themselves hauled before the secretive panel.

The question of whether black lawmakers are now being singled out for scrutiny has been simmering throughout the 111th Congress, with the Office of Congressional Ethics a focal point of the concerns. At one point earlier this year, all eight lawmakers under formal investigation by the House ethics committee, including Rangel [Rep. Charles Rangel] and Waters [Rep. Maxine Waters], were black Democrats. {snip}

There’s a “dual standard, one for most members and one for African-Americans,” said one member of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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Rangel made his own referral to the ethics committee after news reports in 2008 that he improperly controlled four rent-stabilized units in a luxury Harlem building and had used official congressional letterhead to mail donor solicitations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. That case later expanded to include Rangel’s failure to pay taxes on rental income on a Dominican Republic resort home, failure to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in income on his annual disclosure form and his intervention on a tax break for a million-dollar donor to the Rangel Center.

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Waters’s case was referred by OCE to the ethics committee for further investigation as well, and a special four-member investigative subcommittee has found that the California Democrat violated as-yet-unspecified House rules.

While the Statement of Alleged Violation against Waters has not yet been released, she has been under investigation by the ethics committee regarding reports that she intervened with the Treasury Department during the 2008 banking crisis on behalf of a minority bank in which her husband owned more than $250,000 in stock. The initial probe into Waters’s case was launched by OCE, which recommended that she undergo a full investigation by the ethics committee.

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Another black lawmaker, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.)–a close Rangel confidant–has been caught up in an ongoing Justice Department criminal probe involving some of Queens’s most powerful politicians. Meeks has denied any wrongdoing, and, like Rangel, blamed his problems on the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group.

And Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) has come under Justice Department investigation over his role in the Rod Blagojevich scandal. {snip}

Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), the only African-American in the Senate, was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee last November for “incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information” over his appointment by Blagojevich to Obama’s seat.

Other black Democrats who have found themselves in ethics or legal trouble in recent years include: former Rep. Frank Ballance of North Carolina, who went to federal prison in 2005 after being convicted on federal fraud and money laundering charges; former Rep. Earl Hilliard Jr. of Alabama, who was found by the ethics committee in 2002 to have improperly used campaign funds and Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, who was investigated but cleared in 2000 over the gift of a car to her daughter and other allegations.

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In May, Rep. Marcia Fudge, a black Democrat from Ohio, and 19 additional members of the CBC introduced a resolution to rein in the office, created in 2008 as part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) drive to reduce corruption in Congress.

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Fudge’s chief of staff, Dawn Kelly Mobley, was admonished by the ethics committee earlier this year for “improperly communicating” with Carib News during the investigation into whether the organization used corporate funds to pay for Caribbean trips by CBC members, including Rangel in 2007-08. The investigation was led Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a member of the caucus.

“House Democrats are paying a price for OCE’s focus on black lawmakers,” added a Democratic insider close to House leaders. “But that doesn’t change the fact that voters are going to see two African-Americans on trial in the House while they see no action against white members with ethical problems.”

The racism charge, though, was rejected by Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an ethics watchdog group, even as she acknowledged the current situation is bound to anger black lawmakers.

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Sloan noted that several white lawmakers, including Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), are currently under investigation by federal and congressional investigators. Ensign is being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department over the fallout from an extramarital affair he had with the wife of a top aide, while Visclosky and his former chief of staff are being probed over their ties to a now-defunct lobbying firm raided by the feds last year.

Two other white lawmakers, Reps. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and Mark Souder (R-Ind.), resigned this year under ethical clouds. {snip}

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