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Congresswoman seeks answers on postponed ethics hearing

By Joe Johns, CNN
"It appears that we now know the real reason for the delay," Rep. Maxine Waters said. "Something has gone wrong in the ethics process."
"It appears that we now know the real reason for the delay," Rep. Maxine Waters said. "Something has gone wrong in the ethics process."
  • 2 investigators are put on administrative leave with no reason given
  • Waters: "Something has gone wrong in the ethics process"
  • Waters was accused of seeking favors for bank connected with her husband
  • Congresswoman has consistently denied the charges

Washington (CNN) -- A California congresswoman under investigation by the House ethics committee ripped into that committee Wednesday, demanding to know why it secretly put two investigators working on her case on administrative leave on the same day it announced a postponement of a hearing.

Cindy Morgan Kim, the committee's deputy chief counsel and its lead attorney in the case involving Rep. Maxine Waters, and Stacy Sovereign, a committee attorney who assisted on the case, were placed on administrative leave on November 19, ten days before the scheduled date of the hearing, Waters said in a statement.

On Monday, when the hearing would have begun, Waters called on the committee to reschedule or explain why. But on Wednesday, after Politico first reported the story of Kim's and Sovereign's leave, Waters had more to say.

"It appears that we now know the real reason for the delay," she said. "Something has gone wrong in the ethics process."

The California Democrat was charged by the ethics committee in August with allegedly exerting improper influence to help a bank where her husband had been a board member and owned significant stock, a charge she denies. Legal observers in Washington told CNN the case against Waters has been troubled from the start.

The Office of Congressional Ethics referred the case to the House committee last year, saying that Waters approached then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in September 2008 to ask that Treasury Department officials meet with representatives of the National Bankers Association, an organization of minority-owned banks.

But when a meeting took place, the congressional ethics office alleged, the discussion centered around one bank -- OneUnited, where Waters' husband, Sidney Williams, served as a board member from 2004 to 2008 and held $350,000 in stock.

OneUnited eventually received bailout funding, but Neel Kashkari, a top Bush administration bailout official, has said that Waters played no role in obtaining money for the bank. Despite Kashkari's assertion, the ethics committee brought charges, accusing Waters and her chief of staff, a family member, of exerting improper influence to help preserve Williams' investments.

Compiling the evidence necessary for the case has proven to be extremely difficult, lawyers who regularly handle congressional and justice department ethics cases said. The charging documents, for example, laid out a case with gaping holes, they said, that leave questions about how the committee planned to prove that Waters was trying to help a a single bank rather than a large number of mostly minority-owned banks that were in distress at the time.

Waters seems to agree and grabbed the hearing postponement and the attorney's suspension as evidence.

"It seems their conduct was so egregious, that the Committee's chief counsel wanted them fired," she said in her statement. "The Committee should communicate the reasons for this disciplinary action.

"Important questions must be answered. Did the Committee's attorneys withhold exculpatory evidence? Leak documents or speak to the press without authorization? Engage in partisan activity? Mislead Members of Congress? Was the disciplinary action justified? What impact does this have on my case? We don't know the specifics, but we know that the integrity of the Committee and its investigative process have been compromised. The longer the Committee withholds the details of its actions, the more the public's confidence in the House ethics process is eroded."

Congressional sources told CNN that Politico's story -- including the report Waters referred to that the committee's chief counsel, Blake Chisam, initially wanted Kim and Sovereign fired -- was accurate.

An attorney representing the the two investigators did not return CNN's call, but Richard Sauber told the Wall Street Journal, that his "clients were inexplicably placed on administrative leave by the chairman of the House ethics committee."

"These two highly regarded former federal prosecutors have performed their duties for the committee in a manner consistent with the highest ethical and professional standards, and any suggestion that they have done anything inappropriate is false and defamatory," he said. "We are working within the committee process to resolve these issues."

The committee itself has issued no statement about the personnel moves and did not return CNN's calls. The committee has neither confirmed nor denied that the suspensions resulted from something that happened in the Waters case.