WASHINGTON — Regardless of whether the allegations of unethical conduct aimed at Rep. Maxine Waters and other members of the House Financial Services Committee hold up, there could be a chilling effect on relations between banks and members of Congress.
Waters was charged late Monday with impropriety by a House ethics panel after she allegedly helped a minority bank in which her husband had invested to get funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Several other financial services committee members have been investigated in connection with fund-raisers involving bankers before a vote on the regulatory reform bill. Observers said Tuesday that the investigations could lead to relations between banks and lawmakers that are more at arm's-length.
"In a subliminal way there may be some extra caution shown in going to bat for banks," said Kenneth Gross, who leads Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP's political law practice. "I don't know that it would be material or go to the heart of what members generally have done, but it could have some adverse effect."
Brett Kappel, a lawyer who specializes in lobbying and ethics law at Arent Fox LLP, said he already sees more skittishness from bankers. "It certainly seems that the financial institutions themselves are more wary about being portrayed as influencing legislation through campaign contributions, and we've seen all of the PACs from these institutions have severely cut back this year as opposed to the last election cycle," he said.
The Waters case centers on allegations she may have improperly benefited financially from acting to assist a failing minority bank, OneUnited, in which her husband, Sidney Williams, held stock.
Waters allegedly helped bank executives, through the National Bankers Association, set up a meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The Boston bank later got $12 million from Tarp, which was crucial to helping it survive the financial crisis after it had heavy losses on the preferred shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when the government-sponsored enterprises were seized by the government in September 2008.
But Waters is not the only lawmaker facing ethics questions.
Other members of the financial services committee have received large contributions from the financial services sector, mostly through fund-raisers, that came in shortly before the House voted last year on financial reform.
An investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics has targeted six members of the panel — Republicans Reps. John Campbell of California, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Christopher Lee of New York, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Tom Price of Georgia as well as Democrat Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina.
Since the OCE had not issued an official report on the members it is looking at, it is hard to know whether any of them will actually face further investigation by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
Privately, some observers have been skeptical of the allegations, noting that lawmakers had long staked out positions on reform before the fund-raisers, especially Hensarling, who adamantly opposed the bill, and Watt, who supported it.
But George R. Clark, a lawyer specializing in professional responsibility cases, said lawmakers must be careful to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
"Times have changed," he said. "The ethics committee is actually looking harder at things than they have in the past."
Waters is by far the most high-profile case. The No. 3 Democrat on the committee, she also is chairman of its housing subcommittee.
Ethics lawyers were divided over the odds of the Waters case's developing into something bigger.
Gross, the Washington lawyer, said the ethics panel will have to prove that Waters improperly gained financially from her actions, something that may be difficult to prove.
The OCE report released Monday on Rep. Waters said that the Treasury meeting, which Waters did not attend, focused on OneUnited Bank's financial problems in light of the government takeover of Fannie and Freddie and featured executives from the bank, with only one lawyer from the NBA trade group present.
It is clear Waters knew she was on dangerous ground. The report said she consulted with House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank around the time of the meeting, acknowledging her involvement could constitute a conflict of interest, given her husband's ties to the bank. Frank urged her to stay away from the matter.
"Ms. Waters knew that her husband owned stock… she presumably knew that this financial investment of her spouse would be effected by her intervening," said Jan Witold Baran, an ethics expert with the law firm Wiley Rein LLP. "The ethics committees are not known to make this type of a recommendation unless the evidence is extremely compelling."
But Gross said Waters may eventually prevail, given her long history of assisting minority-owned banks.
"It would have been fairly garden variety and wouldn't have raised any issues if she had arranged the meeting and her husband didn't have that personal pecuniary interest," he said. "She did have a plausible reason for intervening here beyond her husband's personal interest, and it was disclosed on her [disclosure] form. There are a lot of competing factors."
Even if the allegations are substantiated, Waters is unlikely to receive any real punishment other than a reprimand or admonishment, such as a letter of warning from the ethics committee. Kappel said the worst punishment would be to her reputation. "That's always the case," he said. "The process is the punishment. It could be, and it has been, damaging to people's political careers."