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Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel in the Spotlight or on the Hotseat

Sharon Kyle: The spotlight this week is on congressional representatives Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel. Both, accused of ethics violations. Both choosing to have their day in court – so to speak.
Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters

Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters

Maxine Waters Charles Rangel Hearings

As we get closer to mid-term elections, it should come as no surprise that stories tarnishing the reputation of Democrats, the dominant party, are beginning to surface and take center stage. The spotlight this week is on congressional representatives Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel. Both, accused of ethics violations. Both choosing to have their day in court – so to speak.

The Democrats’ concern, of course, is that they may lose seats in November. So, although Waters and Rangel are in safe districts, the prevailing wisdom suggests a public ethics trial, at this point in the election cycle, is something to be avoided. So what would motivate these two veteran politicians to move forward with public hearings?

Recently, local L.A. radio personality Patt Morrison of KPCC interviewed Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), KPCC’s Washington Correspondent Kitty Felde, and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Executive Director of Community Coalition, a Los Angeles-based organization, to ask their opinion of these public hearings . As is frequently the case, with both Rangel and Waters being Black, race was one of the predominant themes of the discussion. Which probably explains why Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who clearly stated early in the interview that he didn’t know much about the topic, was among the guests -- he's black.

The program began with Kitty Felde giving a brief background of the events leading up to Ms. Waters’ alleged wrongdoing. According to Felde, during the financial crisis Maxine Waters was asked to make a phone call to the Secretary of the Treasury on behalf of a minority-owned bank in her district. The sticking point was that Maxine Waters’ husband was on the board as recently as 2008 and the couple owned shares in the bank. Ms. Waters disclosed this and made the phone call. She maintains she did nothing wrong, will not apologize and, according to Felde, is insisting on a public hearing. Feldie went on to say that it’s been several years since we’ve had corruption scandals.

Duke Cunningham, Tom Delay, and Jack Abramoff

Duke Cunningham, Tom Delay, and Jack Abramoff

Responding to Felde’s comment Patt Morrison added, “Interestingly, in 2006 it was the Republican scandals like Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham that helped to propel the Democrats into power. Now we have the spector of a Maxine Waters’ public hearing and Charlie Rangel of New York.”

In case you’ve forgotten, this is what Morrison is comparing to the Waters and Rangel hearings:

  • Tom Delay was accused of violating election laws and money laundering. One day after a warrant for his arrest was issued, he turned himself in to the Harris County Sheriff. Delay resigned from the House only after being pressured to do so by his fellow Republicans. On November 24, 2010, DeLay was found guilty by a jury in Austin, Texas, of conspiracy to commit money laundering and making an illegal contribution. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison and 10 years probation. As a convicted felon Delay would never again be eligible to run for public office in Texas nor would he be able to vote in Texas until he completes any sentence, including probation and parole. As of 2012, Delay has been out on bail pending his appeal.
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  • Duke Cunningham resigned from the House, after accepting $2.4 million in bribes and under reporting his income. He pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. Cunningham received a sentence of eight years and four months in prison and an order to pay $1.8 million in restitution.
  • Jack Abramoff was behind one of the broadest and most extensive federal investigations in American history. Abramoff pled guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. Along with other defendants, he was ordered to make restitution to the tune of $25 million. He was sentenced to six years in a federal prison.
Marqueece Harris-Dawson

Marqueece Harris-Dawson

It’s not clear that Patt Morrison, a highly regarded journalist, intentionally likened Maxine Waters’ and Charles Rangel’s alleged rules violations to the wanton criminal behavior of Cunningham, Abramoff, and Delay, but there will undoubtedly be those who, after hearing the program, will conflate the two.

This kind of "clumping" together of criminal convictions with allegations of rules breaking is just the kind of thing that leads other Democrats to distance themselves. They're all to familiar with the public's short attention span and willingness to prematurely leap to conclusions.

The media should do due diligence to make clear the distinction between criminal indictments/convictions and allegations of ethics violations. There should be no confusing the two. But that isn't what happened on this radio program. And perhaps that explains why Waters and Rangel are moving forward with a public hearing with full disclosure of the outcome.

Some say the fact that two Democrats are headed to rare public hearings may grant Republicans just the ammunition they need to regain some of the House seats that are at risk of changing political hands this November.

The House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct frequently referred to as the "Ethics Committee" has a long history, dating back to 1798. So why is it that Waters' and Rangel's hearing is considered rare? In March 2008 , the House enacted legislation (H.Res. 895) to strengthen congressional ethics enforcement with a new Office of Congressional Ethics. Unlike the Ethics Committee which was used exclusively by members of congress, the Office of Congressional Ethics accepts reports of ethical wrong doing from anyone. One need not be a member of congress to bring a concern to the ethics office. According to the Office's website, the goal is to "bring greater accountability and transparency to the ethics enforcement process by requiring, for the first time in history, an independent review of alleged ethics violations by individuals who are not Members of Congress." However, the jury is still out on whether this office is, in fact, accomplishing this.

When Patt Morrison asked Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s opinion of the hearings, he told her he thought they were a red herring and a distraction. Dawson seemed to dismiss the seriousness of the charges lodged against Maxine Waters responding that, “Congress and Bush voted to hand over $700 billion to bail out banks – the idea that over 535 people including members of the House, the Senate, the President and Vice President -- that no one had an interest in Goldman Sachs or AIG is laughable.”

sharon kyle

Could be that Waters and Rangel are in the spotlight and but not on the hotseat. Let's see what the hearings reveal.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive