WASHINGTON – Highly visible ethics trials for two prominent Democrats will almost certainly be put off until after the November election, denying Republicans a televised spectacle that could influence voters near the end of campaigns dominated by economic issues.
The House ethics committee failed this past week to set a trial date for either Reps. Charles Rangel of New York or Maxine Waters of California.
Lawmakers plan to recess by Sept. 30 or soon afterward — not enough time to complete a trial. The House ethics committee is unlikely to start proceedings and then interrupt them. The committee has not announced its intentions.
Neither Rangel nor Waters had an immediate comment on the delay. Rangel, who has tried to negotiate a settlement, has said previously he wanted the case resolved before the election.
Republicans are making a strong bid to regain a House majority. Their House campaign committee is preparing advertisements that will focus on Democrats who received campaign money from Rangel or Waters, and demand that the money be returned. The campaign organization also has sent news releases to 35 House districts on the same issue.
Polling, however, finds the economy and jobs are the dominant campaign issues. News releases and attack ads by the National Republican Campaign Committee won't substitute for a rare televised ethics trial — where House ethics investigators act as prosecutors trying to prove misconduct.
Democratic campaign strategists are predicting that the ethics issue will have little impact on their candidates' individual races. Republicans have juxtaposed Rangel's and Waters' troubles with Democratic leaders' winning campaign strategy four years ago, when they accused the GOP of fostering a "culture of corruption."
The issues then included ethics committee findings and state criminal charges in Texas against former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay; and evidence that GOP leaders knew about Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., sending sexually suggestive e-mails to former House pages, but took no action.
The case against Rangel, the former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee, is the more complicated of the two cases now awaiting trial.
He's charged with using House stationery and staff to solicit money for a New York college center named after him; soliciting donors with interests before the Ways and Means Committee, leaving the impression the money could influence official actions; failing to disclose at least $600,000 in assets and income in a series of inaccurate reports to Congress; using a rent-subsidized New York apartment designated for residential use as a campaign office; and failure to report to the IRS rental income from a unit in a Dominican Republic resort.
Waters, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, is accused of trying to get federal money for a minority owned bank in which her husband is an investor. Some $12 million eventually was given to Boston-based OneUnited Bank by the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, but Waters insisted — and federal regulators testified — that she had no role in the decision.
Rangel has admitted to some ethical lapses and denied other allegations. Waters has denied any wrongdoing, arguing she did nothing beyond setting up a meeting between U.S. banking regulators and officials with an association of minority banks that included OneUnited.
Waters said that when it became clear that the assistance would go to OneUnited, where her husband was an investor, she turned the matter over to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the Financial Services Committee.
Rangel, who just won his primary, was elected to his 20th term from his Harlem district two years ago with 89 percent of the vote. Waters was elected to her 10th term in 2008 with an 83 percent majority.