Rep. Maxine Waters Defends Herself

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In a press conference with reporters this morning, California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters laid out her defense against three charges leveled at her by the House ethics committee. Waters has been accused of arranging a 2008 meeting between Treasury officials and executives from OneUnited Bank, in which her husband was a large shareholder. The bank later received $12 million in TARP aid.

Waters, like fellow Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, denies the charges and has requested a public trial before the ethics committee. Since a trial has yet to be scheduled, she gave a press conference this morning in order to lay out her defense.

Speaking quickly and precisely, Waters explained the chronology and details of the 2008 meetings. She stressed that she organized a meeting between Sec. Henry Paulson and a trade association that represented a large number of banks, not just OneUnited:

The question at this point should not be why I called Sec. Paulson but why I had to. It should be why a trade association representing over 100 minority banks could not get a meeting at the height of the crisis. ... I did not suggest any solution or ask for any favors. I did not ask for a meeting for any individual bank, including OneUnited Bank. I did not suggest who would be participants in that meeting. I did not attend that meeting. And there was no such thing as TARP at that time.   

She claimed that once she realized that OneUnited was in a tough spot, she reached out to Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee -- which was involved in shaping the use of TARP funds -- in order to distance herself from her husband's interests in the bank. 

Waters framed the charges as part of a larger issue of access for small banks. "This case is not just about me," she said. "This case is about access. It's about access for those who are not heard by decision makers. ... For the past 14 years, I have served in elected office both at the state and national level and have made one of my top priorities opening doors for small, minority- and women-owned businesses."

Waters reiterated that she has "not violated any House rules" and that neither she nor her staff have "engaged in improper behavior."

"There are some who do not believe in my philosophy or my methods, but no one should question my devotion to public service," she said, asking the ethics committee to grant her "due process" by scheduling a trial and to "consider the facts of the case and my life's work in trying to provide access to those who have been denied."

Before taking questions, Waters referenced recent murmurs of discrimination against black House members in ethics investigations, saying that she would not be answering questions about the "supposed issue of race in this case." After she finished speaking, one of her staff members projected various pieces of evidences onto a screen and walked reporters through them.  

This careful, methodical public defense stands in contrast to Rangel's scattered efforts to fend off his charges. In an impassioned floor speech last week, the Harlem congressman slung accusations at multiple parties, decrying partisanship in the ethics committee, politicking in the Republican minority, and ungratefulness in the Democratic majority. Like Waters, he has demanded that the ethics committee set a trial date, but rather than presenting a coordinated defense to the media, he's directed people to poorly organized information on his campaign website and has come under fire for holding a lavish birthday party in the midst of the scandal.

Substance of her defense aside -- since it's difficult to evaluate before the trial -- Waters seems to be taking a more effective approach to combating the ethics charges than her emotional colleague.  

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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