The Waters Case

An investigative subcommittee of the House Ethics Committee has charged Representative Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) with three counts of ethics violations stemming from efforts that she and her staff made to assist OneUnited Bank, a Boston-based, minority-owned financial institution which sought and obtained a TARP bailout in the fall of 2008.  These efforts were improper, according to the subcommittee because of Waters’ close personal, political and financial ties to OneUnited.  To wit, the bank’s chairman and CEO had contributed to and raised funds for Waters, Waters’ husband had served on the bank’s board of directors from 2004 to the spring of 2008, and, most significantly, Waters’ husband owned stock in OneUnited that was valued, prior to the financial crisis, at about $350,000.


The relevant events began in late summer 2008, when the value of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fell sharply, threatening the viability of OneUnited, which had invested heavily in these companies.  According to Representative Barney Frank, who turns out to be a key witness in this case, “OneUnited had overbought preferred shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and was therefore at a greater risk of collapse than any other bank” from the insolvency of these companies.


On or about September 7, 2008, the day that the federal government placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship, executives from OneUnited approached Waters and asked her to set up a meeting with the Treasury Department to discuss a proposal under which Treasury would bail out minority-owned banks by purchasing from them, at above market prices, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shares that they owned.  Although the request was ostensibly on behalf of the National Bankers Association (NBA), a trade association of minority-owned banks, it appears that the OneUnited executives were the driving force behind the request and that the bank’s need for a bail out was the primary, if not exclusive, reason for it.


Waters then telephoned Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and asked for the meeting, and he agreed to her request.  The meeting was attended by Waters’s chief of staff (who also happens to be her grandson), some other congressional staffers, and senior Treasury officials.  Attending for the NBA were OneUnited’s counsel who was also the chair-elect of the NBA, the chairman and CEO of OneUnited, and another senior official of the bank.  No other NBA members were represented at the meeting.  During the meeting, the OneUnited officials specifically discussed their bank’s financial situation and asked Treasury to provide them with $50 million to protect the bank against collapse.  The Treasury officials demurred, saying they lacked legal authority to grant this request.


Following the meeting, OneUnited realized that it was unlikely to get relief directly from Treasury.  Accordingly, it began working with allies in Congress, including Representative Waters’ office, to obtain legislative language that would require the federal government to repurchase Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shares owned by any “Community Development Financial Institution,” i.e., banks such as OneUnited.


At around this time, Waters approached Barney Frank to discuss OneUnited’s problem.  According to Frank’s interview with the Office of Congressional Ethics, Waters told him “that she was in a predicament because [her husband] had been involved in the bank, but OneUnited people were coming to her for help.  She knew that she should say no, but it bothered her.”  Although Waters did not tell Frank about her husband’s stock ownership, it was still clear to Frank that “this was a conflict of interest problem.”


Frank told Waters that she should “stay out of it.”  He indicated that he would handle OneUnited’s concerns since he had representational interests (OneUnited was a Boston bank) and was sympathetic to OneUnited’s situation (he had a “commitment to minority banks”).  As the chairman of the Financial Services Committee (a committee on which Waters also served), it made sense for Frank to be involved in the issue.  He instructed his staff to take over the OneUnited matter from Waters’ staff.


Following her discussion(s) with Frank, Waters told her chief of staff words to the effect that Frank would be handling the minority bank issue so he should “not worry about it.”  However, according to the Ethics subcommittee, Waters never instructed her staff to stop assisting OneUnited.  Although Waters herself apparently had no further involvement in the OneUnited issue, her chief of staff continued to be involved in the OneUnited matter, primarily by monitoring and to some extent assisting OneUnited efforts to obtain a legislative fix.  OneUnited was successful in obtaining a provision in the TARP legislation that authorized and encouraged the Secretary of the Treasury to bail out banks in OneUnited’s specific situation, a provision that Frank indicated was crafted with OneUnited in mind.  Ultimately, OneUnited received more than $12 million in TARP funding in December 2008 and was also able to raise significant amounts of private capital to keep itself afloat.


Based on these facts, the Ethics subcommittee has charged Waters with several violations.  It is important, however, to first note what Waters is not charged with.   The subcommittee does not allege that Waters’ actions in arranging the meeting with the Treasury Department or speaking to Frank regarding OneUnited themselves violated the ethics rules.  The subcommittee does not allege that Waters or her staff used improper means to advance OneUnited’s interests (e.g., by threatening or pressuring executive agencies).  Finally, the subcommittee does not allege that the actions by Waters or her staff on behalf of OneUnited were motivated by Waters’ financial interest in the bank (claims, by the always understated CREW, that Waters “abused her office for personal financial gain” notwithstanding).


So what is the basis for the ethics charges against Waters?  The lynchpin is the personal financial interest that Waters had in OneUnited.  Because the failure of OneUnited would have resulted in Waters, through her husband, losing a very substantial investment, the subcommittee alleges that Waters had an obligation to avoid actions that would create the appearance of acting for her own personal benefit, or of receiving a personal benefit (the preservation of her husband’s investment) from the exercise of her official influence, or of dispensing special favors to OneUnited.  Waters allegedly violated this obligation by failing to instruct her chief of staff not to assist OneUnited, even after she acknowledged to Frank that she should not be involved in the OneUnited matter.


It seems undeniable that OneUnited’s requests to Waters and her office created a conflict of interest situation.  But the ethics rules do not require Members of Congress to avoid taking official actions merely because a conflict of interest is presented.  The ethics subcommittee purported to derive, from rather vague and general ethics rules, a specific line which Waters impermissibly crossed.  In my next post I will consider whether this line makes sense under the circumstances presented to the subcommittee.





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