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No smoking gun in Maxine Waters ethics case

Information that forced postponement of Rep. Maxine Waters' ethics trial raises new questions about an investigative panel's charges that the California Democrat improperly tried to steer federal bailout money to a minority-owned bank.
Maxime Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. gestures during her news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 13.  Waters' ethics trial centers on an e-mail written by her chief of staff — who's also her grandson — at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Information that forced postponement of Rep. Maxine Waters' ethics trial raises new questions about an investigative panel's charges that the California Democrat improperly tried to steer federal bailout money to a minority-owned bank where her husband is a stockholder and former director.

A newly discovered e-mail written by Waters' chief of staff at the height of the 2008 financial crisis may have thrown a cloud over the case rather than offering investigators a smoking gun. The surfacing of the e-mail written by staff chief Mikael Moore, who also is Waters' grandson, has forced a delay in her ethics trial, which had been scheduled to begin Monday.

A key question is whether Waters instructed Moore to get assistance for OneUnited Bank. Her husband's investment in the Boston-based bank was in danger of becoming worthless during the near-financial collapse of late 2008.

Waters has contended she was simply trying to help all minority banks in trouble — and specifically those, like OneUnited, that were hurt by their investments in the then-collapsing mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The House ethics committee last week postponed indefinitely a Nov. 29 trial for Waters. a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, on three counts of violating House ethics rules and returned the case to an investigatory subcommittee to consider the new evidence.

Ethics trials are rare. Last week, the ethics committee recommended that the House publicly censure 20-term Rep. Charles Rangel of New York for fundraising and financial conduct that violated congressional rules. It was only the second House trial proceeding in the past two decades.

The recently discovered e-mail had been sent by Moore on Sept. 28, 2008, to staff aides for the committee who were writing legislation that became the Bush administration's controversial $700 billion TARP — Troubled Asset Relief Program — bailout for banks, insurance companies, auto companies and other financial institutions

The e-mail never mentioned OneUnited.

Moore's memo said the congresswoman was "under the explicit impression" that provisions affecting small and minority-owned banks were still in the bailout bill.

"If there is any material or technical changes to the language as last agreed upon, please alert me as soon as possible so that Rep. Waters has an opportunity to weigh in," Moore wrote.

OneUnited did end up receiving $12 million in bailout money, in December 2008. But Treasury Department officials have told House investigators that Waters was not involved in that decision.

Investigators have not revealed a direct link between Waters' conduct and the dispatch of bailout funds to OneUnited. And the ethics committee's case is not helped by survey responses from 28 banks which said they were in similar circumstances as OneUnited.

The survey was conducted by the Independent Community Bankers of America, which represents smaller banks across the country. The banks responding to the survey are institutions that could have benefited from the provision that Waters — according to her chief of staff's e-mail — was closely monitoring in the writing of the bailout bill.

Paul Merski, chief economist for the independent bankers, said the real number of banks in similar circumstances could be as high as 300, because only a fraction of the group's members responded.

"This was for more banks than just one bank," he said in an interview.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said in an interview that he inserted the provision for minority banks to protect OneUnited — because it is based in his state.

But he said of Waters, "I did not know she was watching" the drafting of the section. "We never discussed it," he said. "I heard from people in Massachusetts."

The provision sought by Waters — and inserted by Frank — told the Treasury Department that it should consider — for bailout money — banks that had an asset size of $1 billion or less, and whose size dropped to a lower range because they owned devalued, preferred stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Asset size is the total dollar amount of everything a bank owns or controls, including loans, real estate holdings, securities and office equipment.

Another difficulty in proving the violations: the provision by itself did not qualify any bank for bailout money.

All banks applying for bailout funds had to meet a number of Treasury thresholds to get the assistance. The Fannie-Freddie section merely instructed Treasury not to overlook banks that lost money due to their investments in the mortgage companies. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the government.

Waters has acknowledged that in early September 2008, she asked then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to arrange a meeting between Treasury officials and a trade group of minority-owned banks. The purpose was to assist institutions harmed by the devalued Fannie and Freddie stock, she said.

While Waters did not attend, the two representatives of the National Bankers Association at the meeting were OneUnited's chief executive officer and its senior counsel — who also was chairman-elect of the association. No other bank was represented.

Waters has contended that she was acting solely on the request of the association, and argued that she never made any request to Paulson on what should be done.

According to the ethics committee charges, Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, had an investment in OneUnited that was valued at more than $351,000 on June 20, 2008. It had dwindled to $175,000 by Sept. 30, 2008, the time period when Waters was monitoring the TARP legislation.

If OneUnited had not received federal financial help, the charges said, the investment could have become worthless.