WASHINGTON– After three years of steadfastly declaring her innocence, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has been exonerated of allegations that she violated ethics codes in connection with her role in advocating for the inclusion of minority-owned banks in the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
Charges were filed against Waters with the House Ethics Committee when it was discovered that her husband, Sidney Williams, owned shares in OneUnited Bank, one of the black-owned financial institutions that benefited from TARP funds.
Williams also served on the bank's board from January 2004 to April 2008. By September 2008, at the peak of the Great Recession, OneUnited was on its last legs. The bank's failure would have gutted Williams' investment. In December 2008, a $12 million dollar life raft, courtesy of TARP, rescued the bank and Williams' stock.
The House Ethics Committee conducted an investigation that lasted more than 1,200 days. At issue was whether Waters was acting on behalf of OneUnited or seeking to protect her husband's investment.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said there never should have been an investigation in the first place.
As Waters continued to profess her innocence, a leaked memo revealed that the Ethics Committee had engaged in questionable behavior, forcing five Republican members to recuse themselves from the case. Veteran Washington lawyer Billy Martin, an African-American, was brought in to serve as independent counsel.
Last Friday, Martin reported that there was no evidence that Waters breached the ethics code, effectively exonerating the 11-term congresswoman, pending the full vote by the ethics committee.
Waters' chief of staff, Mikael Moore, may still be in trouble for his role in tracking down bail money and Hill support for OneUnited.
"It's kind of odd to exonerate her and then find a member of her staff responsible," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan group that advocates for ethics and accountability in government.
Sloan said she found most of Moore's answers during his testimony hard to understand and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who sat on the ethics committee, said many of Moore's statements "strained credibility."
Yet, Moore personally held no personal financial stake in the bank, which raised more questions for congressional ethics experts such as Sloan, who wondered why the committee would still be looking at whether Moore's actions amounted to conflict of interest.
Sloan questioned Moore's initial hiring in 2008. Moore not only served as Waters' chief of staff, he is also her grandson.
House Ethics rules ban members of Congress from hiring and promoting relatives, but the House Ethics Manual doesn't specifically cover grandchildren.