House ethics panel in turmoil as top lawyer resigns

By Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; A09

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.

Boehner's office declined to comment on his pending five selections to the ethics committee next year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will be minority leader next year, has also declined to comment on her five picks for the panel.

The partisan tension on the panel reached a peak with Bonner's unilateral move to shut down the office. During Thanksgiving week, a Capitol Police officer guarded the door of the ethics panel offices in the U.S. Capitol, and about eight staff members were told not to come to work, sources said.

Bonner declined to comment on the incident. "You'd have to check with the committee," he said Wednesday.

Chisam, who is the public spokesman for the panel, declined to comment.

Waters is accused of allowing her staff to help executives from a minority-owned bank, in which her husband was a large investor, obtain $12 million in bailout funds during the 2008 financial crisis. She has denied wrongdoing, saying that as a senior member of the Financial Services Committee she was trying to help a broad group of minority banks.

Her trial was delayed when the committee announced that it had uncovered an e-mail from September 2008 that included more discussions between her personal legislative office and committee staff about the bailout legislation.

At the same time, the committee privately suspended the two lawyers who had been leading the investigation. The Washington Post has reported that the suspensions came just before Thanksgiving in a dispute with Chisam.

With Chisam stepping down and the other lawyers suspended, the ethics panel appears to have no counsel left to present the Waters case.

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