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Commentary: Cleaver's quest to clean up ethics committee

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s latest cause has nothing to do with Kansas City or even Missouri, and he knows it’s not going to win many points with some voters.

But here it is: Cleaver is calling for the dismissal of ethics charges against two prominent African-American members of Congress — Maxine Waters of California and Charlie Rangel of New York, both Democrats.

Cleaver said he’s also not backing off his bolt-out-of-the-blue remarks last month when he demanded to know why black lawmakers are being targeted in ethics probes at a higher rate than white lawmakers.

“The process has been tainted,” the Kansas City Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said. “I’ve spoken to two judges here in D.C. who told me if this had happened in their courts or any court in the land, they would have thrown it out.”

Waters has been accused of improperly intervening during the 2008 national economic crisis on behalf of a minority-owned bank in which her husband held $350,000 in stock.

The House censured Rangel, a former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, after the ethics panel found him guilty of 11 violations that included charges that he had misused federal resources.

Cleaver is speaking out even though he knows the public couldn’t care less about lawmakers who are battling ethics violations. He harkens back to the old Martin Luther King quote about injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere.

There’s no question the ethics panel has endured waves of internal infighting, resignations and charges that investigators have violated procedures. One accusation is that two lead ethics staffers improperly shared findings.

Another is more explosive. An internal ethics document The Star obtained accused the same two staffers of making racist remarks. One staffer is quoted as saying that African-American prosecutors in Prince George’s County are “not as smart” as white prosecutors.

According to the report, the same staffer also once wondered how a “blond-haired, blue-eyed prosecutor” like herself could be expected to get a Washington jury to convict a defendant.

That the two staffers and the panel’s former director who leveled many of the charges are no longer with the committee doesn’t matter, Cleaver said. The cases are damaged, and the House needs to move on.

“They should be thrown out,” he said.

Republicans tell him privately all the time that they agree with him, Cleaver said. Committee members, however, are afraid to clear anyone because they’ll be seen as soft on ethics, and that never sells with voters. The entire process needs to be reformed, Cleaver said.

“You just don’t come to the defense of elected officials.”

But he is. And in a big way. So you wonder: How will this play with 5th District voters?