An Analogy that Won’t Hold Water

Before leaving the subject of the ethics case against Representative Waters, a final comment with regard to her attempt to have the charges dismissed.  Her defense team based its motion to dismiss almost entirely on the claim that Waters’ conduct was “nearly identical to” that of Representative Sam Graves.  I have blogged about the ethics charges against Graves, which were dismissed last year. 

            The attempt to equate the two cases is frankly ridiculous.  True, they both involve a Member’s spouse who had an ownership interest in a company that was part of an industry that the Member dealt with in the course of performing official activities.  The similarity ends there, however.   

In Graves’ case, he invited a witness to testify at a committee hearing as a representative of the biofuels industry.  The witness, whom Graves knew, owned stock in two biofuels companies in which Graves’ wife was also invested.  However, there was no indication, either objective or subjective, that this co-investor relationship had any bearing on the invitation to testify.  Any conceivable benefit that Graves might have received from the hearing was (a) remote and speculative, since no legislative or executive action was pending or expected; (b) entirely derivative of the interests of the biofuels industry as a whole, since there was no specific interest of the two companies at stake; and (c) completely unrelated to the fact of this particular witness testifying. 

In Waters’ case, the company in question, OneUnited, was seeking immediate action, both legislative and executive, for its own benefit.  Because OneUnited stated that the action was necessary to save it from insolvency, there was also an imminent and direct connection between the action sought and a financial benefit to Waters (because her husband’s stock would have been worthless if OneUnited had become insolvent).  Under these circumstances, a reasonable person might suspect that Waters’ actions were motivated by a desire to protect her financial interests.  In Graves’ case, such a suspicion would have been entirely unreasonable. 

As the investigative subcommittee points out in rejecting the motion to dismiss, the Waters’ case would have been similar to Graves’ if she had simply invited a OneUnited executive to testify, as the representative of the minority-owned banking industry, at a committee hearing discussing the overall interests of the industry as a whole.  In fact, this did happen—at a 2007 hearing of a House Financial Services subcommittee—and no one has suggested that it violated any ethics rules. 

The case against Waters is a borderline one, and there are strong arguments that she can make in her defense.  Comparing her case to that against Graves is not one of them.