House ethics panel in turmoil as top lawyer resigns

By Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010

The top lawyer on the House ethics committee has resigned, deepening the turmoil surrounding the panel and creating new uncertainty about its pending case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The Waters case - she is accused of inappropriately helping a financially troubled bank in which her husband was an investor - was delayed last month as two other committee attorneys assigned to the matter were suspended.

The resignation this week of the panel's top attorney, R. Blake Chisam, could further limit its ability to move the case forward, as Waters has demanded.

Chisam's resignation comes amid revelations that Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the panel's top Republican member, last month ordered Capitol Police to block the doors of the committee offices for a week. Bonner instructed that staff members be barred from entering the office during a partisan dispute involving the Waters case, according to sources familiar with the incident.

The tumult also appears to have added to the uncertainty about the future composition of the panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a member of the committee, said the Waters case should not be considered by the current committee. "It would be healthy to have a panel that could take a fresh look at the case," he said Wednesday.

"It may be desirable for leadership to consider appointing all new members to the committee," he said.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who as incoming speaker will select all Republicans on the committee when the GOP takes the majority in January, has not told Bonner whether he will be chairman.

"I haven't talked to the leader in several days. I will support whatever he decides," Bonner said in an interview Wednesday.

From conversations with leadership aides, some ethics committee staff members were left with the impression that Bonner will be replaced, according to sources who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations of a committee that operates under strict secrecy rules.

Other sources indicated that no final decision has been made.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the current chairman, has declined to address questions from reporters on whether she would return to the panel as the ranking Democrat next year. Chisam has been a top Lofgren staffer for several years.

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