Conflict of interests for ranking Democrat on House Ethics Committee

This flew under the radar on Friday with all of the attention focused on the crisis in Egypt, but it’s worth revisiting.  Linda Sanchez became the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee after the departure of former chair Zoe Lofgren last week, and therefore helps control the actions of the evenly-split panel.  That creates a conflict of interest in the committee’s most high-profile case, that of Maxine Waters, whose legal counsel is related to Sanchez’ chief of staff — and who represented Sanchez and her sister in an earlier ethics probe:

Rep. Linda Sanchez has only been the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee for three days, but there are already questions about whether Sanchez has a conflict of interest involving her chief of staff, a top ethics lawyer and the high-profile Maxine Waters ethics trial that looms before the committee.

Sanchez’s chief of staff is Adam Brand, son of top ethics lawyer – and former House general counsel – Stan Brand. The elder Brand is representing Waters (D-Calif.) in the ethics case pending before the Ethics Committee.

Stan Brand, who is widely respected among his fellow lawyers and the media who cover the cases, also represented Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Linda’s sister, in an ethics case involving both women. Linda Sanchez placed three staffers from her sister’s office on her payroll following an embezzlement scandal involving an aide to Loretta Sanchez in 2006. The Ethics Committee reviewed the matter but neither Sanchez was ever charged with any wrongdoing.

There are no House ethics rules barring Linda Sanchez from serving on the Ethics Committee because of her ties to Stan Brand or the fact that she was investigated by the secretive panel, but the overlapping interests with her sister, her top staffer and one of Washington’s most prominent ethics lawyer could certainly complicate things for her work on the Ethics Committee.

How much will it “complicate things” for Sanchez and the panel?  It depends on what expectations one has for the Ethics committee.  If one expects it to fulfill its mission of ensuring the highest ethical conduct of elected officials and punishing transgressors, then yes, having one’s counsel represent the accused would be as complicated as a trial judge hearing a case where his personal lawyer represents one of the principals.  If the expectation is that the Ethics committee exists to provide lip service to enforcement of the rules and take action only when public outrage makes it unavoidable, then a conflict of interest is mainly academic anyway.

Keep this in mind, though, when the new Ethics Committee starts to decide what to do with Maxine Waters.  If they let her off the hook without any hearing at all, the connection between Sanchez and Waters’ attorney should be recalled immediately.