When It Comes to Ethics in Washington, Is Race A Factor?

August 2, 2010  |  

by Charing Ball

The Office of Congressional Ethics, a new watchdog group set up by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has once again turned its attention on another member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The latest target of this group is Congresswoman Maxine Waters, one of the longest-standing and if not the most outspoken black Democrats in Congress, who is accused of intervening on behalf of OneUnited, a Boston-based Black-owned bank, which her husband Sidney Williams once served as a board member.

It is said that Waters arranged a meeting with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2008 to ask him to hold a special meeting, in which the chief executive officer for OneUnited used the opportunity to ask for a $50 million dollar bank bailout, for the loss it had taken on the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae investments. Within a week, OneUnited received a 12.1 million dollar bailout- less than half of what was originally requested.

As we already know, Waters is not the only member of the CBC on the radar of the Ethic Committee. New York Democrat Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) also faces an ethics trial this fall on 13 charges that included failure to disclose assets and income, nonpayment of taxes and doing legislative favors for donors to a college center named after him.

Last year, Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), also a member of the Black Caucus, was under investigation for a fundraiser, which yielded large checks from finance groups like Goldman Sachs. After the fundraiser, Watts is said to have withdrawn a proposal he had introduced, which would subject auto dealers to tougher regulations.

Other Ethic Committee investigations included Laura Richardson (D-CA), Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill), whom are all members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Irrespective if the accusations of unethical practices are true or not, one could legitimately argue that when it comes to ethics in Congress, there might be a higher level of scrutiny and accountability, when ethnicity comes into play. And much like the judicial system that we common folk must face, the level of discretion by the Ethics Committee, which is made up of both Democrats and Republicans, between the CBC and their white congressional counterparts are often unequally applied.

For instance, Christopher Dodd, who is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, is reported to have received approximately $70,000 in campaign contributions from Bank of America as well as VIP loans from Countrywide loans, prior to working on such bills as the Financial Reform Packages, which by all accounts, is a shell of any real appearance of reform.

And there is Rep. Joe Barton, member of the House and Energy Commerce Committee, is probably best remembered as the guy that apologized and damn near spit-shined the shoes of BP President Tony Hayward during congressional hearings on the Gulf Oil Spill.  Barton called Obama’s demanding that the oil company place $20 million in escrow to help pay for future “shakedown.”  It should come as little surprise that Barton was also the recipient of more than $1.5 million in campaign donations from the oil industry.

And I would be remised if I didn’t mention former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who became the subject of an ethics investigation after reports surfaced showing that he had offered to endorse the candidacy of a lawmaker’s son in exchange for a critical House vote on Medicare reform.

While all three members of Congress were investigated by the Ethics Committee, all were either cleared of any wrongdoing or received a slap on the wrist. And while Rangel will be facing public hearing in the Fall, a decision reached when the representatives fail to reach agreements of guilt with the Ethic Committee, it should be noted that the last time the House actually held a public hearing was in 2002, only after the conviction of then-Rep. Jim Traficant on federal corruption charges. Ironically, Rangel has never been charged or convicted of any criminal wrongdoing.

To be clear, I am in no way making excuses or suggesting that Rangel, Waters or any member of the CBC receive a pass for their transgressions. And when it comes to corruption in Washington, I believed that the angry ethics mob, wielding the moral pitchforks, should be swung in any and all directions, regardless of race. But when out of the 30 investigation levied by the Congressional Ethic Committee only yields three members of the Congressional Black Caucus, it’s only logical to conclude that race is a factor.

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