Thursday, October 07, 2004

DeLay Is Faulted by Ethics Panel for Second Time

The New York Times
October 7, 2004
DeLay Is Faulted by Ethics Panel for Second Time

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 - Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, was admonished by the House ethics committee on Wednesday night for the second time in less than a week, this time for appearing to link legislative action to political donations and for sending federal officials to search for Texas legislators during a fracas over redistricting in that state.

In a long-awaited report that provoked an angry reaction from House Republicans, the committee dismissed the most serious charges of bribery and special favors. But the back-to-back admonishments marked an extraordinary turn of events in the House, and Mr. DeLay moved quickly to defend himself even as good-government groups were calling for him to resign as leader.

"For years, Democrats have hurled relentless personal attacks at me, hoping to tie my hands and smear my name,'' he said in a statement shortly after the committee released its report. "All have fallen short, not because of insufficient venom, but because of insufficient merit.''

The rebukes on Wednesday came on the heels of another admonishment, issued last Thursday, to Mr. DeLay for pressuring a Michigan lawmaker to switch his vote on an important health care bill. In a seven-page letter to the majority leader - who was also admonished by the committee several years ago - the ethics panel, composed of five Republicans and five Democrats, issued Mr. DeLay a stern warning.

"In view of the number of instances to date in which the committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you have engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions,'' the panel wrote.

The committee faulted Mr. DeLay for participating in, and helping facilitate, a two-day golf fund-raiser held by a Topeka-based energy company, Westar, to raise money for one of his political action committees. The event took place just as the House was considering energy legislation from which Westar stood to benefit; the panel said that at a minimum, it "created an appearance that donors were being provided special access to you regarding the then-pending energy legislation.''

In addition, the panel found that Mr. DeLay had wrongly exhorted officials of the Federal Aviation Administration to look for Texas state legislators when they fled to Oklahoma last year to avoid a contentious vote on redistricting. The panel said the action "raises serious concerns" under House rules that "preclude use of government resources for a political undertaking."

The report immediately engendered bitter partisan fighting in the House, where Democrats regard Mr. DeLay as the personification of the bare-knuckles style of Republican leadership. Republicans rushed to Mr. DeLay's defense Wednesday night, heaping criticism on Representative Chris Bell, the Texas Democrat who filed the complaint against the majority leader.

"Tom DeLay is a good man and a strong leader and these politically motivated attacks will not deter him,'' said Representative Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Shame on Chris Bell."

In his response to the accusations, Mr. DeLay complained that Mr. Bell had engaged in innuendo; in its report, the committee pledged to look into that complaint.

Whether the rebukes will spell political trouble for the majority leader is unclear. Democrats, who are already making Mr. DeLay a campaign issue, have planned press briefings for Thursday morning to discuss the matter. Mr. DeLay enjoys broad support in the Republican caucus, but some Republicans have said privately that his ethics record could complicate any plans he might have to become speaker of the House, as many assumed he would when the current speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, retires.

Already, two outside groups - Democracy 21, an independent watchdog group, and Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest group - have called for Mr. DeLay to step down as leader. "It is time either for Representative DeLay to step down as majority leader or else for the House Republican Conference to remove him,'' said Fred Wertheimer, who heads Democracy 21.

Mr. DeLay has long maintained that the accusations against him are politically motivated; the inquiry that prompted Wednesday night's admonishments is deeply intertwined with Texas politics and the redistricting that has reshaped the political landscape there. The complaint was filed in June by Mr. Bell, who lost a primary election after the redistricting.

In addition to the allegations regarding Westar and the Federal Aviation Administration, Mr. Bell also complained that Mr. DeLay funneled contributions from one of his political action committees to the Republican National Committee "in an apparent money-laundering scheme.''

The committee deferred action on the third allegation, because that matter is being investigated by a grand jury in Texas. The grand jury recently indicted some of Mr. DeLay's aides, as well as Westar and seven other companies, in that case.

Last Thursday, the panel formally admonished Mr. DeLay for improperly trying to persuade a Michigan Republican, Representative Nick Smith, to change his vote on prescription drug legislation that passed the House by a narrow margin last year. The panel said it had determined that the majority leader offered to endorse Mr. Smith's son in a Congressional primary if the elder Mr. Smith voted in favor of the measure, which was then teetering on the edge of defeat.

Mr. Smith did not change his vote, but the legislation passed. His son lost the primary.