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Cohee at OneUnited, bank in Maxine Waters case, has checkered record

The House ethics committee announced that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) will face trial for her role in steering federal funds to a bank to which she is personally connected. She denies any wrongdoing. Her career in photos:

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By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

As chairman and chief executive of OneUnited Bank, Kevin L. Cohee has sought to build a company that is about more than just money. He promoted the bank, now at the center of a House ethics case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), as a uniquely responsible investor in impoverished minority communities and urged prospective clients to live modestly.

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Customers ought to focus on "real connections, real relationships," Cohee urges in a recording on the bank's Web site. Avoid "people who want to be with you based on the things that you have."

"Do you really need a Mercedes-Benz?" he asks. "Houses don't make you, cars don't make you."

Cohee, 52, took a somewhat different view in his own life. His bank bought or leased luxury real estate he used and, until federal regulators complained in 2008, paid for his Porsche. Cohee's East Coast spread was an $880,000 condominium on Miami Beach's Ocean Drive, and out west the bank leased a $26,500-a-month mansion for him on Palisades Beach Road in Santa Monica, Calif., owned by Bruce Springsteen's drummer, Max Weinberg.

A battle of lawsuits over the house -- Cohee complained that he had to ship in "a huge bar, a desk, a chandelier," and Weinberg accused him of installing secret surveillance cameras in the master bedroom -- led Cohee and his wife, through a corporation they formed, to buy the house for $6.4 million in late 2006. OneUnited then provided him a living allowance at the mansion, where, a year later, he was twice arrested, on sexual assault and drug charges.

It was the bank's assistance with his expenses that helped provoke a cease-and-desist order from the federal government, accusing the bank and its officers of misspending and lax lending, and putting its operating license at risk.

That order landed in the fall of 2008, in the same period that Cohee and his colleagues at the bank were in contact with Waters and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to secure tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to keep it afloat. About $51 million of the bank's stock in federally chartered lending agencies had become virtually worthless, leaving it with a shortage of capital.

OneUnited's loss was also a loss for Waters's husband, Sidney Williams, a former member of the bank's board whose stock in it had plummeted in value from about $350,000 to $170,000. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, the couple had earned a total of more than $35,000 in dividends from Williams's OneUnited stock. Cohee and other bank officers had also contributed at least $11,000 to her campaign and organized a fundraiser for her at one of his homes.

In December 2008, after Frank inserted language in legislation he said was meant to benefit OneUnited and similar banks, the bank received a $12 million grant from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), created to encourage lending by healthy, viable banks. A report released this week by a congressional ethics committee said that without that grant and some new private investment, Waters's husband's financial interest in OneUnited "would have been worthless" -- a contention that Waters's attorneys dispute.

Waters's decision to arrange a September meeting, requested by Cohee, with Treasury Department officials at which the bank appealed for federal money is at the heart of allegations that she violated House rules, a charge she vehemently denies. Waters acknowledges setting up the meeting with Cohee, who is African American, but says it was on behalf of minority-owned banks in general.

A review of public records and statements shows that it was not the first time the congresswoman had interceded with government officials in a way that helped Cohee and his fellow bank owners while her husband had financial ties to his bank.

In 2002, Waters wrote a letter with others to the governor of California in an attempt to block the sale of a black-owned bank in her district to a white-owned bank in Illinois, an action that helped pave the way for Cohee's bank -- then named the Boston Bank of Commerce -- to acquire it instead. "We want to keep the ownership. That way, we'll know that the bank won't be closed or merged into a bigger institution," Waters told the Los Angeles Times in February of that year.


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