Thursday, May 05, 2005

2 in GOP to skip DeLay ethics probe


2 in GOP to skip DeLay ethics probe

By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Two of the five Republicans on the House ethics committee will not participate in any investigation of potentially improper travel by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the panel's chairman said Wednesday.

Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund last year, creating what outside ethics experts regarded as a conflict of interest.

Those contributions "raise doubts — however unwarranted — about whether those members would be able to judge fairly allegations of impropriety against Mr. DeLay," committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement.

DeLay is the No. 2 House GOP leader — behind the speaker of the House — and a key strategist for President Bush's legislative agenda. He is credited with strengthening the GOP's hold on the House. Some of his recent trips are under scrutiny because of evidence they were paid for by lobbyists or representatives of foreign interests, which is against House rules.

Smith and Cole would be replaced in any committee deliberations involving DeLay by two other Republicans to be chosen by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. House records show that 85 of the current 231 Republican lawmakers have donated a total of $357,000 to the DeLay Legal Defense Trust since it was set up in 2000 to pay his legal bills. Both Smith and Cole gave $5,000 in 2004 to the fund. Smith gave an additional $5,000 in 2000, before the current travel issues arose.

"Providing money for their defense to somebody who comes before you (to be judged) is something that raises serious questions," said Kenneth Gross, an attorney who has advised Democrats and Republicans in campaign finance and ethics matters.

Hastings said his announcement should not be interpreted as a prediction that the committee will have to take action on DeLay, or that Smith and Cole could not be objective.

The announcement followed a meeting of the 10-member ethics panel, the only House committee with equal membership from the two parties. The panel formally organized itself after a four-month dispute over its rules was resolved last week.

Hastert backed down from rules changes that would have dismissed a complaint after 45 days if there was no majority to launch an investigation. Instead, the committee now must continue to grapple with a case unless a majority agrees to dismiss it or proceed. Hastert contended the proposed rules were designed to provide lawmakers with due process protections. Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, charged the rules were designed to rig the ethics process in favor of DeLay, who was admonished three times last year for missteps.

DeLay on Wednesday repeated his desire to go before the ethics panel with documentation of his privately financed travel over the past decade, saying he is optimistic he will be exonerated.