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Waters’ Ethics Spat Bears No Relationship to Rangel’s

The headlines blare over at the New York Times: “Ethics Trial Expected for California Congresswoman.” (Since when were these called trials, anyway?) And the CW weathervanes have concluded that this series of “trials” will harm Democratic efforts to hold onto the House in November.

I guess because you have two black members of Congress embroiled in ethics violations and hearings before the relevant committee, you could pair them up and spin out some kind of Democratic-specific controversy. But the similarities really do end there. Rangel, in my considered opinion, is guilty. His own defense in the case of multiple ethics charges basically admits guilt. He says that he was inattentive to various tax issues, and that other members of Congress took similar junkets to him but weren’t charged with anything. Whether Rangel eventually receives a reprimand or not, people clearly are talking about resignation, and even the President is talking about the longtime New York Congressman ending his career with dignity.

By contrast, here’s what Waters has been charged with:

A House ethics subcommittee has charged Ms. Waters, 71, a 10-term congresswoman, in a case involving communications that she had with the top executive of a bank that her husband owned stock in while it was applying for a federal bailout in 2008, two House officials said […]

Ms. Waters, at the time the investigation by the House ethics panel began last fall, was accused of intervening on behalf of OneUnited, a Boston-based bank. The Times reported last year that Ms. Waters called Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. in 2008, as the economy was in a free fall, to ask him to host a special meeting with executives from black-owned banks.

As a key House player on the Financial Services Committee, Ms. Waters often called Mr. Paulson. He agreed to arrange the requested meeting, The New York Times reported last year.

What Mr. Paulson did not know at the time was that Ms. Waters’s husband, Sidney Williams, owned stock in and had served on the board of OneUnited, whose chief executive turned the Treasury headquarters meeting into a special appeal for bailout assistance. The executive of the institution, one of the nation’s largest black-owned banks, asked for $50 million in federal aid, The Times reported.

It’s entirely possible that this is as fishy as it sounds, I suppose. But this case has been around for well over a year, and the evidence in it actually supports Waters’ view of the events. Here’s Zachary Roth:

Waters’ office has released to TPM two letters sent by the National Bankers Association (NBA), a trade group for minority-owned banks, to the Treasury Department, in reference to a September 2008 meeting Waters had helped set up between NBA and Treasury. The letters appear to back Waters’ contention that the meeting, at which OneUnited’s CEO reportedly asked explicitly for bailout money, was not set up exclusively to help OneUnited, but rather on behalf of minority-ownded banks more broadly.

That doesn’t contradict anything the New York Times reported, it’s worth noting. But it does appear to bolster Waters’ claim, made in a statement she put out earlier today, that she wasn’t looking out for OneUnited’s interests above those of other minority-owned banks. Waters has long been an advocate in Congress for minority-owned banks.

Waters also released a 2007 document showing that she disclosed her ties to OneUnited — her husband had previously served on the board, and owned stock — before questioning witnesses at a House hearing on minority-owned banks.

If Waters is guilty of anything, it’s not disclosing to Treasury what she disclosed in open testimony in the House. Still, it’s hard to conclude she was doing much of anything here beyond advocating for minority-owned banks.

Here’s Waters herself on CNBC explaining her view on the charges:

Waters is fighting charges that do not seem to be much more than a slight misstep in disclosure, literally nothing compared to the astounding greed we’ve seen as a result of corporate lobbying. I can think of dozens of cases off the top of my head, from Democrats and Republicans, that make this look just silly in comparison, starting with the allegations of financial services industry fundraisers on the eve of votes on FinReg in the House last December.

You don’t have to carry a torch for Maxine Waters to know that her case is wholly different than the case of Charlie Rangel’s, and that they’re being placed together because of coincidental timing and skin color.

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David Dayen

David Dayen