In a very unusual move, six members of the House Ethics Committee — all five Republicans and the top Democrat — have taken themselves off the investigation into South L.A. congresswoman Maxine Waters and her alleged ethics violations.
The committee is looking at claims that Waters used her political clout to help a bank in which her husband owned stock.
The case has been in trouble for more than a year. Waters’ ethics trial was put on hold, and an outside attorney, Billy Martin, was hired to examine how the Committee pursued the case. His investigation hit a brick wall when a former staffer described as a “necessary witness” refused to talk.
That’s when Martin recommended 6 of the 10 members of the Committee recuse themselves: five Republicans who’d been on the Committee when the investigation began, plus the top Democrat, Linda Sanchez of Cerritos. She joined the committee last year.
Martin said recusal was necessary “to avoid even an appearance of unfairness.” Waters asked last summer that the GOP members be removed from her case. Replacements have already been named.
A leader of Common Cause, the citizens’ lobby, says this is another reason to take these investigations out of the hands of politicians.
How rare is it for more than half the Ethics Committee to bow out of an investigation?
"It’s very very unusual," says Sarah Dufendach of Common Cause. She's been watching Capitol Hill for 30 years and says the recusals are the latest in a string of “odd” incidents.
"Staffers have gone on indefinite administrative leave and it’s not disclosed why," Dufendach says. "Now, you’ve got these members recusing themselves and people don’t know why."
Dufendach says she respects the Ethics Committee’s desire to work in secret to protect the innocent, "But after a while, this just become a farce!"
The good news, she says, is that there is an outside investigator investigating the Committee. But the larger question is, how to take politics out of the process?
"It’s too much to ask of human beings to be the judge and jury of, not just their own peers, but the people they have to sit next to!" Dufendach says.
Dufendach suggests turning the entire process over to the Office of Congressional Ethics, made up of former members and community leaders.
Committee Chairman Jo Bonner of Alabama says the investigation will go forward, in his words, "in a fair and unbiased manner."
This story has been updated.