WASHINGTON — Six out of the 10 members of the House Ethics Committee recused themselves Friday from an investigation involving Rep. Maxine Waters and the bailout of a bank in which her husband owned shares.
The six recusals came at the advice of Billy Martin, an outside lawyer who the committee hired last July to review not only the conduct of Waters, but also the Ethics Committee's handling of the case, which involves conduct dating back to 2008.
Removing themselves from the case were Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner, fellow Republican Reps. Michael McCaul, Michael Conaway, Charles Dent and Gregg Harper, and Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez.
According to a letter released Friday by the Ethics Committee, the six members all voluntarily submitted to interviews and turned over documents to Martin. The letter cited several reasons for their recusals. It said that the six members believe that, out of an abundance of caution and to avoid even an appearance of unfairness, their recusals will eliminate the possibility of questions being raised about bias on the part of the committee.
The letter also states that the six members want to make clear that the Waters investigation is continuing in a fair and unbiased manner.
At issue in the Waters case is a 2008 meeting that she arranged between executives at OneUnited Bank, a minority-owned bank with which her husband had financial ties, and Treasury Department officials. Treasury later gave the bank $12 million in federal bailout funds.
Waters has repeatedly denied any impropriety, but the House Ethics Committee charged her in June 2010 with violating House rules and the ethics code for government employees.
Her trial was delayed, though, after questions emerged about the conduct of committee staff during the investigation. The committee handed off its investigation to Martin following a Politico story last July that raised questions about whether the committee's own investigation had been compromised. The story cited an allegation by the committee's former staff director that two committee lawyers secretly communicated with Republican members of the committee about the case.
The recusals appear to be related to those questions.
The letter said that Martin has reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents and interviewed current and former committee members and staffers.
While most were cooperative, the letter says that one witness responded to a subpoena by invoking the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The letter suggests that the uncooperative witness is a former committee staffer, but did not name him or her.
"The witness's refusal to answer questions prevents the completion of the due process review," Bonner wrote in the letter, which was sent to House Speaker John Boehner.
"While Mr. Martin had advised that the most appropriate time to present his recommendations regarding recusal would be upon the completion of his due process review, he has now counseled the Committee to advance that time and consider the recusal recommendations prior to considering the witness's refusal to testify."
The recusals and letter seem to suggest that Martin is nearing the end of his investigation.
The ethics case is being watched closely by the financial services industry because its outcome appears likely to impact the choice of successor to retiring Rep. Barney Frank as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. Waters is widely seen as the front-runner as long as the ethics case doesn't derail her candidacy.
The following House members were chosen by Boehner to fill the six empty seats during the committee's consideration of the Waters case: GOP Reps. Bob Goodlatte, Michael Simpson, Steven LaTourette, Shelley Moore Capito and Tim Griffin, and Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes.