Maxine Waters: charges highlight mixed ethics record

California Rep. Maxine Waters, a powerful 'liberal institution' in Congress, has raised ethics eyebrows in the past.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington in October 2009. A House investigative panel has charged California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters with violating ethics rules. Waters, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, would face a trial in the fall unless she negotiates a settlement.

Did the storm surrounding Rep. Maxine Waters come out of the blue?

The California Democrat faces a House Ethics Committee trial. Congressional investigators accuse her of helping to steer federal funds into a bank to which she had personal connection. Representative Waters has fierce defenders, but that doesn't mean her reputation is beyond reproach.

Waters is a bit like a modern version of an urban political boss, says Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney. "Just like an old-style boss, she has admirers who believe that she has brought them great benefits," he says. But she also has detractors who think that she and her family have profited from their political activity, he says.

Jasmyne Cannick, a Los Angeles-based author who writes about the African-American community, says “everyone knows that Maxine Waters is not only beloved in her district, but across the state and country."

But government watchdogs point out what they call a series of ethical lapses for Waters.

“I don’t think this investigation comes out of nowhere," says Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). "It’s not like she has a sterling reputation on ethical issues."

In 2005, 2006, and 2009, Washington's Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics named Waters one of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress. Citizens Against Government Waste named her "Porker of the Month" in 2009 for directing an earmark to the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center. And a 2004 investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed that some in Waters's family had made more than $1 million from 1996 to 2004 by, among other things, doing business with businesses that Waters had helped politically.

Waters is being investigated for her role in arranging meetings in 2009 between US Treasury officials and representatives of minority-owned banks, including one in which her husband, Sidney Williams, owns stock. The Office of Congressional Ethics issued an 80-page report Monday showing its bipartisan board had voted unanimously that Waters might have violated US House rules concerning conflicts of interest.

Waters released a statement denying wrongdoing and saying she would answer the charges in a public hearing.

Waters will not be shy or retiring about the charges, says Mr. Pitney. “She has a well-deserved reputation for tenacity and aggressiveness, which may make some lawmakers think twice about crossing her,” he says. “Angering Maxine Waters is not on the list of 'Fun Things to Do in DC.' "

The most senior African-American woman in Congress, Waters is a liberal institution, says Ms. Levinson. “[She] rose from garment factory worker to congresswoman – that career trajectory is the stuff of which American dreams are made."

Other political commentators wonder about the motivations behind the charges Waters faces.

“It's no accident that Waters has been dumped on the political hot seat three months before the 2010 midterm elections,” writes Earl Hutchinson by e-mail. The Los Angeles-based author of 10 books on the black image in America says House Democrats are afraid that the GOP will erase their majority. And "what better way to ... make good on Pelosi's oft-quoted vow to [drain] the swamp in Congress than to make sacrificial lambs out of a handful of wayward Democrats?” he asks.

The investigation of Waters, on the heels of another ethics probe – of New York Rep. Charles Rangel – comes at a bad time for Democrats, says CGS president Robert Stern, and portends a shift in how politicians are policing their own.

“Unfortunately, she and Charlie Rangel have been in office for so long that they don't ... realize that the public is paying much more attention to what each legislator does,” says Mr. Stern. “The Democrats took on [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and [former GOP House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay for ethical questions, so the Democrats should understand that their actions will also be carefully examined and questioned.”


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