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A swamp drained? Ethics cases muddy the waters

Democratic leaders say they've emptied the swamp of congressional corruption. Never mind the ethics trials to come for two longtime party members.
Maxine Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has been charged with ethics violations, raising the possibility of a second trial this fall.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democratic leaders say they've emptied the swamp of congressional corruption. Never mind the ethics trials to come for two longtime party members.

"Drain the swamp we did, because this was a terrible place," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week of the Republican rule in the House that ended in January 2007.

Pelosi's statement might seem odd, but it's an emerging strategy: Separate Democratic-initiated ethics reforms from the cases of Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Maxine Waters, D-Calif.

Pelosi needs a strategy because Republicans have been adept at jumping on the troubles of Rangel, the former House Ways and Means chairman, and Waters, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee.

Republican news releases going to states and districts with close congressional races demand that Democratic candidates give up money donated by the two lawmakers.

The House Republican campaign committee immediately issued a statement after the ethics committee announced charges against Waters on Monday. Its headline: "The Dirty Details: Ethics Office Reveals Waters Charges. Panel Has 'Substantial Reason to Believe' Dems Have Another Ethics Problem on Their Hands."

Waters faces three charges for requesting federal help for a bank where her husband owned stock and had served on the board of directors.

Waters fought back, in a written statement that said, "No benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced: no case."

The charges against Rangel included failing to disclose assets and income, delayed payment of federal taxes and improper use of a subsidized New York apartment for his campaign office.

Republicans love to throw back at Pelosi her "drain the swamp" promise of four years ago, when Democrats used the issue to help capture the House.

"The swamp was described in the press as a 'criminal syndicate' operating out of the Republican leader's office," she said last week in defining the phrase.

Pelosi said House Democrats have implemented "the toughest ethics reform in a generation" through "landmark legislation requiring unprecedented level of disclosure."

"Are there going to be individual issues to be dealt with? Yes. I never said that there wouldn't be," Pelosi said. "But we would have a process to deal with it."

People familiar with the Waters investigation, who were not authorized to be quoted on charges not yet made public, said Waters is accused of violating:

  • A rule that House members may not exert improper influence that results in a personal benefit.
  • The government employees' ethics code, which prohibits granting or accepting special favors, for the employee or family members, that could be viewed as influencing official actions.
  • A rule that members' conduct must reflect creditably on the House.

The charges against Waters were filed July 28 by a four-member investigative panel and announced Monday without any details. An eight-member subcommittee of four Democrats and four Republicans will now conduct the Waters trial. The specifics of the allegations won't be made public until the panel — four Democrats and four Republicans — hold its still-unscheduled organizational meeting.

Waters said in her statement: "I have not violated any House rules. Therefore, I simply will not be forced to admit to something I did not do and instead have chosen to respond to charges made by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in a public hearing."