Racial disparity: All active ethics probes focus on Black lawmakers
The House ethics committee is currently investigating seven African-American lawmakers–more than 15 percent of the total in the House. And an eighth Black member, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., would be under investigation if the Justice Department hadn’t asked the committee to stand down.
Not a single white lawmaker is currently the subject of a full-scale ethics committee probe.
The ethics committee declined to respond to questions about the racial disparity, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus are wary of talking about it on the record. But privately, some Black members are outraged–and see in the numbers a worrisome trend in the actions of ethics watchdogs on and off Capitol Hill.
“Is there concern whether someone is trying to set up [Congressional Black Caucus] members? Yeah, there is,” a Black House Democrat said. “It looks as if there is somebody out there who understands what the rules [are] and sends names to the ethics committee with the goal of going after the [CBC].”
African-American politicians have long complained that they’re treated unfairly when ethical issues arise. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are still fuming over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to oust then -Rep. William Jefferson from the House Ways and Means Committee in 2006, and some have argued that race plays a role in the ongoing efforts to remove Rep. Charles Rangel from his chairmanship of that committee.
Last week’s actions by the House ethics committee are sure to add fuel to the fire.
The committee–which has one African-American lawmaker, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), among its 10 members–on Thursday considered three referrals from the recently formed Office of Congressional Ethics. It dismissed a case against Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who is white, but agreed to open full-blown investigations of California Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Laura Richardson, both of whom are Black.
The committee was already investigating five other African-Americans. Rangel is the subject of two different probes, one involving a host of issues he has put before the committee and another involving allegations that corporate funds may have been used improperly to pay for members’ trips to the Caribbean in 2007-08. Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) are also included in the second of those investigations.
A document leaked to The Washington Post last week showed that nearly three dozen lawmakers have come under scrutiny this year by either the House ethics committee or the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog created in 2008 at the insistence of Pelosi. While the list contained a substantial number of white lawmakers, the ethics committee has not yet launched formal investigative subcommittees with respect to any of them–as it has with the seven African-American members.
The OCE has also been a particular target of ire for the Congressional Black Caucus. Black lawmakers, including CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), met with OCE officials earlier this year to raise their concerns. Spokesmen for Lee and the OCE both declined to comment.
A number of CBC members opposed the resolution establishing the OCE, arguing that it was the wrong response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which helped Democrats seize control of the House in 2006.
Setting up the OCE “was a mistake,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told The Hill newspaper recently. “Congress has a long and rich history of overreacting to a crisis.”
Cleaver, though, now finds himself part of the four-member subcommittee that will investigate Waters, who voted against the OCE. Waters is being probed over her intervention with the Treasury Department on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband served on the board and owned at least $250,000 in stock.
While she has flatly denied engaging in any unethical or improper behavior in her dealings with OneUnited, Waters was described by colleagues and Democratic aides as “livid” over the ethics committee’s decision to investigate her.