The Congressional Black Caucus believes the House Ethics Committee has singled out its black membership for ethics investigations.
“We all feel threatened,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) told The Atlantic. “If the only reason that you would suffer a complaint is because of your skin color, that is a cause for concern.”
Although African-Americans only comprise 10 percent of the Congress, five of the six lawmakers presently being investigated by the House Ethics Committee are black (the one white member is Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), whom the late Andrew Breitbart called on to resign). In the latter part of 2009, all seven members of Congress engaged in formal House ethics inquiries were African-American.
It’s “like a police force out of control,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-MO).
But some experts say that the Congressional Black Caucus is uniquely rife with ethics issues. “Nobody wants to say that, because as soon as you do, you’re accused of being racists,” says Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The black caucus really does have more ethics problems.” Ms. Sloan said that last year, of the 19 members of Congress featured on her organization’s “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” list, five were black lawmakers.
The Congressional Black Caucus’s sole Republican member, Rep. Allen West (R-FL), disagrees with the group’s racial assessment:
When I commanded a battalion, if you had a certain platoon that had some issues, you didn’t say that you were picking on that platoon. Maybe there were some issues in that platoon you had to look at.
Recent African-American lawmakers who have been investigated for possible ethics violations include:
- Former Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) who is now in prison for corruption, including having stuffed $90,000 in his freezer.
- Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) who was impeached and removed from the federal bench in 1989 for his role in a $150,000 bribery case. Presently, Mr. Hastings is being investigated for possible sexual harassment and was cleared for taking per diem allowances.
- Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) who is the subject of an ethics case involving her role in possibly steering $12 million in bailout money to a bank in which her husband owns a stake.
- Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) whose ethics probe has been temporarily halted so that the Justice Department can investigate the matter. At issue is Mr. Jackson’s role in former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s efforts to sell then-Senator Barack Obama’s senate seat.
- Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) who was publicly censured and lost his powerful seat as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee when he was found guilty of 11 ethics charges involving personal finances, including his failure to pay income taxes on his properties in the Dominican Republic and inappropriately using his position for fundraising.
- Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) who survived and was cleared of his 2010 ethics probe into possible misuse of travel to the Caribbean.
- Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) who has faced two ethics investigations in two years, one involving whether she “pressured her staff to engage in banned political activities while on her congressional payroll.”
- Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) who was forced to pay a $63,000 fine for having “billed his campaign more than $6,000 in personal-trainer expenses, among other things.” Presently, Mr. Meeks is being investigated on possible failure to “disclose a $40,000 payment he said was a loan.”
The Atlantic points out that some political observers believe black lawmakers are uniquely susceptible to ethics lapses because many come from safe districts that encourage them to become “too comfortable or insulated.”
Still, for African-American members of Congress, the issue is one of racially-motivated targeting.
“It makes for an uncomfortable feeling as you walk these halls,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO).