Still, Rangel’s case is a particularly sore spot. Few now—except perhaps the lawmaker himself—debate his culpability in failing to pay income taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic or misusing his position to solicit donations. But many African-American lawmakers feel that he was overzealously prosecuted, if not persecuted. All but one member of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed Rangel’s censure, only the 23rd doled out in U.S. history.
“The treatment of Charlie Rangel was unprecedented,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the lone black lawmaker who sat on, and ultimately dissented from, the Ethics panel when it brought the charges against Rangel. Scott preferred a lesser punishment as more befitting the offenses. “The problem with acting without precedence is that it invites speculation as to the reason,” Scott said.
If Rangel’s punishment sparked a sustained outcry from black lawmakers, the ethics case against Maxine Waters threatens to shake the congressional ethics system to its foundations.
The longest-tenured African-American woman in Congress, Waters is accused of arranging a 2008 meeting with Treasury Department officials to help steer financial-bailout funds to a minority-owned bank in which her husband held a stake. Soon after the meeting, Treasury gave the bank $12 million.
But the case was polarizing almost from the start. On the very same day that the Ethics Committee opened a full-fledged investigation of Waters, it also absolved a white lawmaker, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., of an ethical lapse for inviting a witness to testify at a hearing about renewable fuels without disclosing that his own wife and the witness were investors in renewable-fuels plants. The cases, both referred to the committee by the OCE, were substantively different, to be sure. But both involved spousal conflicts. And their timing and disparate outcome—one quickly resolved, the other lingering for years—injected race into the discussion. (Waters declined comment for this story.)
The Ethics panel formally charged Waters with violating House rules in mid-2010. But by last summer, the inquiry was frozen; a special counsel, D.C. lawyer Billy Martin, was recruited after allegations surfaced of improper communication between investigators and GOP committee members. Two committee aides who had led the Waters probe have been placed on indefinite leave. The panel’s then-staff director, in a memo first published by Politico, accused them of making racially insensitive remarks.
Then, last month, every Republican on the Ethics Committee, and the top Democrat, recused themselves from the case at Martin’s recommendation. The committee revealed that at least one key witness—possibly one of the two former aides—had declined to answer Martin’s questions, even after being subpoenaed; the witness cited the Fifth Amendment. A final report from Martin, a prominent African-American attorney whose past clients have ranged from Monica Lewinsky to Michael Vick, is due by July.
Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and its sole black member, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., declined to comment for this story.
Black lawmakers who have chaffed under ethics reviews seem almost giddy at the turn of events. Rangel, for one, could barely muzzle his pleasure when asked about the imbroglio. “The Ethics Committee is presently under investigation,” he said with a grin. “So I think, in fairness to them, whatever comments I have as it relates to my experience should at least wait until the results of the investigation.”
GROWING TOO COMFORTABLE
But the question persists: Do African-American members simply commit more ethical lapses? “Nobody wants to say that, because as soon as you do, you’re accused of being racists,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. Sloan said it anyway: “The black caucus really does have more ethics problems.”
Sloan said she empathizes with those innocent lawmakers who feel targeted. But, she said, plenty of African-Americans have been guilty of bending the rules. For the past six years, at least one black lawmaker has graced her group’s list of the “Most Corrupt Members of Congress.” Last year, five out 19 were black. One former fixture on that list, African-American ex-Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., has been sentenced to prison--the FBI raided his home in 2006 and found $90,000 stashed in his freezer.
Some of the current targets of probes don’t present the most sympathetic of profiles.
Richardson has seen a constant churning of staff and one former aide’s resignation letter, since made public, called her office “toxic and hostile.” The California lawmaker is facing her second ethics investigation, this time over whether she forced aides to “volunteer” for her campaign; the first probe cleared Richardson of receiving preferential treatment from her mortgage lender.