Updated 3:18 p.m.
A half-dozen members of the House Ethics Committee have recused themselves from the troubled investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and been replaced by a new team, a sign that the stalled probe is set to restart.
Waters has faced scrutiny since 2009 over whether she improperly sought federal aid for OneUnited, a bank in which her husband had a financial stake. The Ethics panel has been riven by infighting, as Republican and Democratic members and aides accused each other of mishandling the investigation and Waters, who has maintained her innocence, has demanded the case be dismissed.
Last year, the committee hired veteran defense lawyer Billy Martin Jr. to conduct an outside review of the probe. In a letter Friday to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), six committee members said Martin had found no evidence of any “actual bias or partiality” by the lawmakers, but they were voluntarily recusing themselves from the case anyway to “eliminate the possibility of questions being raised” and “move this matter forward.”
Waters’s office had not provided comment on the recusal as of this posting.
The lawmakers recusing themselves are Reps. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Michael Conaway (R-Texas), Charles Dent (R-Pa.) and Gregg Harper (R-Miss.). Bonner and Sanchez are the chairman and ranking Democrat on the panel, respectively.
In their place, Boehner named six substitute lawmakers who will serve on Ethics solely to handle the Waters investigation, giving the committee the ability to resume a probe that had been paralyzed by controversy for months. No current committee staff who had previously worked on the Waters case will be allowed to continue aiding the investigation.
The six substitute members are Republican Reps. Robert Goodlatte (Va.), Michael Simpson (Idaho), Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Tim Griffin (Ark.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R) as well as Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes (Md.). The Waters probe will now be led by Goodlatte and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a current member of the Ethics panel who was not previously involved in the Waters case.
Kenneth Gross, an ethics attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the mass recusal appeared to be “unprecedented” in a congressional investigation. But he said the move was understandable, given the circumstances.
“The committee wants to start with a clean slate,” Gross said. “In view of the messy history of this case, it seems to be a smart move.”
In their letter to Boehner, the six lawmakers said “each current and former member and current employee, who was requested for interview, fully cooperated” with Martin’s probe. But notably, “one necessary witness” — a former aide, based on the letter’s description — chose not to appear and signaled plans to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Martin was hired after two Ethics panel investigators, C. Morgan Kim and Stacey L. Sovereign, were accused by former panel staff director Blake Chisam of violating committee rules by sharing information about the Waters probe only with Republican lawmakers.
The two aides were suspended from their jobs by then-Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) as a result, but Bonner .— who became chairman of Ethics in January 2011 — said they were improperly sanctioned. Both eventually left the committee staff.
Richard A. Sauber, an attorney for Kim and Sovereign, said Friday that neither of his clients had taken the Fifth, and that both “willingly and voluntarily answered all of the special counsel’s questions to his satisfaction.”
Chisam, who is now a partner at the immigration law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Ethics Committee took up the Waters case after the Office of Congressional Ethics, a quasi-independent body charged with vetting allegations against lawmakers, found that the Californian probably broke conflict-of-interest rules in her pursuit of federal aid for OneUnited.