Two of the House Ethics Committee's current investigations focus
on whether current Members used their office for personal financial
The chain of events leading to the probes of Democratic Reps.
Shelley Berkley (Nev.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) are
straightforward and factually similar: Both lawmakers urged outside
entities to take actions that would, if successful, eventually
benefit their spouses financially.
But determining whether the actions were taken primarily for
their own benefit or for a larger group will be key to establishing
whether any ethics violations occurred.
Legal experts told Roll Call that such cases fall into a gray
area of ethics rules that's filled with opportunities for divergent
interpretations because conclusions could hinge on establishing
"I think Representatives are all trying to do the right thing,
but there will be some differences of opinion sometimes when it
comes to conflicts-of-interest [cases]. It's an area that's a little
ambiguous and less clear-cut," said Jan Witold Baran of Wiley Rein.
The committee announced earlier this month that it would form an
investigative subcommittee to handle the Berkley case. The
independent Office of Congressional Ethics referred the case to the
committee after reviewing the seven-term lawmaker's role in trying
to save a kidney transplant program at a hospital where her
husband's medical practice had a lucrative contract and to preserve
government reimbursements for dialysis centers, which his practice
owns throughout the state.
The Waters case, which the committee is investigating with the
help of an outside counsel, focuses on her role in setting up
meetings between Treasury Department officials and the National
Bankers Association to discuss the financial health of minority
banks. The OCE referred the case after finding that the meeting
focused on one bank where Waters' husband had previously been a
board member and in which he had a financial stake.
The cases against both lawmakers rely on the application of House
rules, passages in the Code of Ethics for Government Service and
guidance in the House Ethics Manual related to conflicts of interest
and using a government office for personal financial gain.
Baran said the rules on Congressional conflicts of interest and
matters of personal interest are narrowly tailored to encourage
participation in the legislative process unless a lawmaker has a
direct and specific financial interest.
"The general principle is that the ethics rules discourage
finding a conflict of interest because the consequence is so
dramatic, it prevents a Member or Representative from participating
or voting on legislative matters," Baran said. …