Ethics watchdogs are calling on Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL) to step down as chairman of the House Ethics Committee — at least temporarily — for his role in the ongoing turmoil over Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) case.
“I think there needs to be an investigation into the whole matter, including Mr. Bonner’s role and that Mr. Bonner should step aside during the course of that investigation,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told TPM Tuesday. “If Mr. Bonner is found to have broken the committee’s rules, he should be sanctioned by the full House.”
Another ethics expert said the partisan infighting and charges of prosecutorial misconduct surrounding the Waters case should force Congressional leaders to fundamentally restructure the ethics system and hand authority for policing members conduct over to an independent, non-partisan entity.
Indeed, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a board comprised of mostly former members, first investigated the Waters’ case without incident and forwarded its recommendations to the full committee for further review. It was only when the matter hit the full ethics panel that partisan sniping and charges and counter charges of unprofessional behavior ensued.
“The prosecutorial misconduct - which appears to be driven by members and staff alike for simple partisan gamesmanship, even by Chairman Bonner - is the very reason why both the House and Senate ethics committees need to be fundamentally restructured into independent agencies, in which nonpartisan people outside of Congress sit in judgment,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman.
“Bonner and his staff have shown much the same tendency to exploit the ethics committee for partisan gain, as we used to see under [former Speaker] Newt Gingrich and [ex-Majority Leader] Tom DeLay. Bonner has lost the credibility to lead the ethics committee, especially in the case of Maxine Waters, and by all means should recuse himself from this affair.”
After all the partisan dysfunction on the panel in the last year, Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer said the House has no choice but to strengthen the OCE and give it more power to police members behavior.
“The House Speaker and House Democratic Leader need to establish a means for determining what happened in the Ethics Committee and what additional changes are now needed to fix the House ethics enforcement process. The issue of strengthening the role of the Office of Congressional Ethics must be considered in this examination.”
Neither the House Ethics Committee nor Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) office returned a request for comment about allegations that Bonner engaged in improper communication with attorneys on the panel last year while he was still its ranking member.
An unprecedented leak of internal ethics documents from last fall provide new details about Bonner’s role in the alleged bungling of the ethics committee’s case against Waters. The scores of Ethics Committee e-mails and memos, reported by Politico Monday with links to the documents, paint a picture of a committee consumed by partisan dysfunction and accusations of professional misconduct surrounding Waters’ case.
Waters has been engaged in an intense battle with the ethics committee, which last year charged her with three ethics violations for intervening on behalf of a minority-owned bank in its request for bailout funds in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. Her husband owned more than $350,000 worth of stock in the bank at the time.
An attorney for Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) Monday afternoon called on the Ethics Committee to immediately dismiss the charges against her in the wake of document leak. He followed up with a letter to the Ethics Committee Tuesday.
“The misconduct is of such a fundamentally improper level that it cannot be cured by reliance on any other device, including employment of a special counsel,” Stan Brand, her attorney, wrote. “Simply put, given the foregoing history, this Committee can never conduct an impartial and unbiased inquiry into this matter.”
Unlike in a normal court of law, Waters may have no formal way to file a complaint against the Ethics Committee. But at the very least, Waters could take her fight to the floor of the House, calling on Bonner to step down from the position and repeatedly raise the allegations of mistreatment and unprofessional conduct. The spectacle undoubtedly would attract the attention of the media and many of her peers already wary of the ethics committee’s policing power.
Criticism of Bonner focuses on charges that he improperly communicated with the two attorneys assigned to Waters’ case. According to a memo written by Blake Chisam, the former chief counsel of the panel, to its then-Chairwoman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) Bonner and at least one Bonner aide who did not have the authority to access confidential panel materials received emails and other information from the two attorneys, who were later placed on administrative leave and eventually left the committee.
The attorneys also improperly communicated with Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the special panel overseeing the trial of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who later the House censured for a separate string of charges, according to Chisam’s memo. There are strict Ethics Committee rules preventing contact between the staff attorneys assigned to prosecute a case and the lawmakers who serve as the jury weighing the evidence.
“They have engaged in impermissible ex parte communication with Republican staff and members of the committee,” Chisam said the attorneys in a different memo sent to Lofgren in December.
Ethics watchdogs have repeatedly called on the panel to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case, but others have argued that doing so would unfairly punish Waters and force her to spend hundreds of thousands — if not millions of dollars — on additional attorney fees.
Under more normal circumstances, Holman said he would prefer that the ethics panel handle the matter themselves but believes the committee is no longer capable of doing so.
“More appropriately, the House ethics committee should concede it is no longer up to the task of handling the case of Maxine Waters and turn it over to a special prosecutor,” he told TPM. “I say this with a great deal of regret, since the Waters case is precisely the type of matter that should have been dealt with by the House ethics committee, without resorting to the more expensive and probably more zealous investigation of a special prosecutor.”
With the credibility of the House ethics process at stake, Wertheimer also said a special prosecutor is necessary to handle the Waters’ matter.