Six members of the House Ethics Committee withdraw from Waters probe
(CNN) In an unusual move Friday, six members of the House Ethics Committee recused themselves from the investigation of Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, after outside counsel hired to review the case recommended they no longer participate in the probe.
A letter from Alabama Republican Jo Bonner read on the House floor requested that House Speaker John Boehner appoint six new members to continue the inquiry, effectively replacing himself, four additional Republicans, and one Democrat two and a half years into the investigation.
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“I am writing to request the appointment of six substitute members,” said Bonner, a Republican congressman from Alabama.
The ethics committee hired outside counsel Billy Martin in July of 2011 to review the case after multiple reports of possible improper communication among committee attorneys and lawmakers on the panel.
After interviewing current and former Ethics Committee members and staff, as well as assessing “tens of thousands of pages of documents,” Martin recommended that leadership and four sitting members recuse themselves from the inquiry.
Recusal recommendations were not expected to occur until Martin completed his review, but because “one necessary witness refused to appear voluntarily” and planned to exercise Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when subpoenaed to testify, Martin was compelled to “advance that timing.”
“The witness’ refusal to answer questions prevents the completion of the due process review,” Bonner said.
However, he noted that Martin had not discovered any evidence that indicated “actual bias or partiality,” any “conflict which would cause disqualification,” or anything that “should cause a mandatory recusal.”
A source close to the investigation told CNN this kind of move was unprecedented.
Members stepping aside include Bonner, Texas Reps. Michael McCaul and Michael Conaway, Pennsylvania Rep. Charles Dent, and Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi-all Republican-as well as Democratic California Rep. Linda Sanchez, who served as ranking member on the bipartisan panel.
Bonner listed reasoning for the action saying, “The members requested recusal because 1) They believe that, out of an abundance of caution and to avoid even an appearance of unfairness, their voluntary recusal will eliminate the possibility of questions being raised as to the partiality or bias of committee members considering this manner; 2) They want to assure the public the House and Representative Waters that this investigation is continuing in a fair and unbiased manner; and 3) They want to move this matter forward in a manner that supports the greatest public confidence in the ultimate conclusions of the committee.”
Democratic Reps. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Donna Edwards of Maryland, Pedro Pierluisi from Puerto Rico, and Joe Courtney of Connecticut remain part of the investigation as ethics committee members.
In October 2009 the ethics committee unanimously voted to investigate whether Waters violated any House rules when she helped arrange a meeting in September 2008 between OneUnited, a minority-owned bank in which her husband had financial interest, and Treasury Department officials.
The bank was seeking federal assistance and Waters is a senior member of the House Financial Services committee.
Waters has asserted her innocence since the beginning of the probe. An ethics trial scheduled for November of 2010 was postponed. The following month Waters insisted that committee leadership “set the record straight” and examine media reports of misconduct on the part of two attorneys leading the case against her.
In July 2011 Waters sent a letter urging the recusal of all members of the ethics committee involved in the investigation.
Waters’ office has not yet responded to a CNN request for comment on the recusals.
Following Martin’s recommendation that “no member who served on the committee in the 111th Congress should serve as a substitute,” Boehner named GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte from Virginia to serve as acting chairman for the duration of the investigation. Fellow Republicans including Rep. Michael Simpson of Idaho, Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette, West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, and Arkansas Rep. Tim Griffin were also named as substitutes. Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland replaces Sanchez, and Yarmuth will serve as acting ranking member for the duration of the investigation.
Though Bonner, Sanchez, McCaul, Conaway, Dent, and Harper have recused themselves from the Waters probe, the letter confirms they will continue to serve on the ethics committee for all other purposes, with Bonner serving as chairman and Sanchez as ranking member.