Reprinted from Roll Call (October 2, 2012)
Q: I am a House staffer with a question about the outcome of the
ethics investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). As I understand it, the
Ethics Committee concluded that Waters' chief of staff violated House rules but
that Waters herself did not. I had thought that Members were generally
considered responsible for ethics violations committed by their employees. How
is it possible then that Waters' chief of staff could have committed a violation
without Waters committing one, too?
A: The Waters ethics investigation is worthy of a novel. It lasted
more than three years, involved the hiring of outside counsel and had more
twists and turns than a daytime soap opera. But all of those twists and turns
are beside the point to your question, which goes to what the Ethics Committee
ultimately concluded about Waters and Chief of Staff Mikael Moore, who also
happens to be her grandson.
The investigation concerned actions taken during the financial crisis of 2002
to try to save OneUnited Bank, an institution in which Waters held stock and for
which Waters' husband served on the board of directors. Last Month, the Ethics
Committee issued a "letter of reproval" to Moore for "taking official action on
behalf of OneUnited Bank, an entity in which your employing Member,
Representative Maxine Waters, had a financial interest."
The letter cites three rules. One is the general rule requiring House
employees to behave in a manner that reflects creditably on the House. The
second is Rule XXIII, Clause 3, which states that a "Member, Delegate, Resident
Commissioner, or employees of the House may not receive compensation ... from
any source, the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly
exerted from the position of such individual in Congress." The third is
Paragraph 5 of the Code of Ethics, which says federal employees may "never
discriminate unfairly by dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone,
whether for remuneration or not."
So what did Moore do wrong? The letter says Moore took actions to help
OneUnited Bank's efforts to obtain assistance from the government and avoid
financial collapse. Moore did so by communicating with the House Financial
Services Committee on OneUnited Bank's behalf, including sending several emails
in September 2008, when OneUnited Bank was in dire financial straits.
In an email to an aide, Moore wrote that OneUnited "is in trouble" and then
followed up: "I think it will become a timetable issue." Days later, Moore sent
another email that appeared to inquire about a meeting between staff members
from the House Financial Services Committee and the Treasury Department. The
staffer responded, "[We] will continue to pursue [the Treasury Department]
acting without legislation, but [another staffer] and I are also working on
drafting CDFI-related language to help them that we could try to possibly add to
the bailout bill."
For these efforts on OneUnited's behalf, the Ethics Committee reproved Moore,
but not Waters.
As you suggest, there have been cases where the Ethics Committee has deemed
Members responsible for the violations of their subordinates. For example, in
2010, the committee charged Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) with ethics violations
based in part on the conduct of his staff.
In a report issued last week, the Ethics Committee explained that Waters took
steps to inform Moore of her conflict of interest with respect to OneUnited and
to prevent him from acting on OneUnited's behalf. First, she publicly disclosed
her financial interest in OneUnited well before Moore's actions. Second, she
informed the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee of the conflict
of interest and that she would not be involved in OneUnited's efforts to obtain
financial assistance. And, finally, she told Moore about her conversation with
the chairman and directed Moore not to help with OneUnited's request.
This certainly does not mean that Members need not worry about the conduct of
their staff. To the contrary, the ethics report cautioned Members that,
notwithstanding the result in this particular case, "they may be held
responsible for the actions of their staff."
In cases involving potential conflicts of interest, the report provided some
useful tips. Where a Member is aware of a potential conflict of interest
regarding a particular person or entity, the report says, the Member should
inform all staffers of the potential conflict. To avoid "mistakes" and
"misunderstandings," the report recommends notifying staff of all entities in
which a Member has a financial interest and documenting the notification.
Finally, the report says, Members should direct staff to inform those entities
to direct specific requests for assistance elsewhere.
The fact that the Ethics Committee did not hold Waters responsible for her
chief of staff's actions does not signal a change to its policy that Members can
be liable for the actions of their staffers. Rather, it provides yet another
reminder that Members should closely supervise their staffers, lest they expose
themselves to potential trouble with the Ethics Committee.
© Copyright 2012, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission. Widely regarded as the leading publication for Congressional news and information, Roll Call has been the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. For more information, visit