Monday, June 14, 2004

In a new twist to a bitter Texas political feud, Rep. Chris Bell, a Houston Democrat, is finalizing a House ethics complaint against Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land.

Bell seeks ethics investigation of DeLay

Congressman plans to file complaint Tuesday

By JULIE MASON, Houston Chronicle
June 14, 2004

WASHINGTON -- In a new twist to a bitter Texas political feud, Rep. Chris Bell, a Houston Democrat, is finalizing a House ethics complaint against Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land.

Bell, a first-term congressman who lost his House seat in a redistricting battle engineered by DeLay, plans to file documents Tuesday seeking an investigation by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said spokesman Eric Burns.

Officials who have seen a draft of the complaint say it focuses on DeLay's relationship with Westar Energy Inc. and the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee. Also included, they said, is DeLay's effort to get federal law enforcement officials to track Texas lawmakers who fled last year to Ardmore, Okla.

Jonathan Grella, spokesman for DeLay, accused Bell and Democrats of waging a "kitchen sink strategy" in an attempt to smear DeLay and the Republican Party.

"These are warmed-over and factually deficient allegations from a bitter partisan seeking liberal martyrdom on his way out of office," Grella said Sunday. "This election-year kamikaze mission is doomed to fail, as have all previous attempts of this cynical and sad sort that make a mockery of the process."

Bell's move against DeLay is unusual in that it defies an unofficial but widely acknowledged truce among House lawmakers against filing ethics complaints against each other.

Under House rules, only a member can file an ethics complaint against another member. In seven years, there has been little activity in House ethics investigations, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"I think this filing will really push the ethics committee to take a hard look at this," said Sloan, a federal prosecutor who worked with Bell in drafting the complaint. "When no one has been willing to do this for seven years, it is not an easy thing to suddenly go and file a complaint against DeLay, who is known to be one of the most vindictive people in government."

DeLay, known as "the hammer" for his tight control over House Republicans, is one of the most powerful politicians in Washington -- and one of the most investigated. Bell's complaint is not expected to include allegations of misconduct not already widely reported.

Burns declined to provide the document until it is filed and would only confirm that the complaint is in the works. However, two people who have seen the complaint say it will allege, among other things, that DeLay:

· Improperly accepted campaign contributions from Kansas-based Westar Energy Corp. in exchange for help securing a special exemption from federal regulation.

· Funneled illegal corporate contributions, including from Westar and others, through the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee to GOP candidates for the Texas House.

· Solicited the assistance of the Federal Aviation Administration to track more than 50 Texas Democratic lawmakers who fled from Austin to Ardmore, Okla., in 2003. Their exodus denied the state House a quorum and temporarily stalled work on the DeLay-backed redistricting program.

In each instance, DeLay has denied any wrongdoing. Grella said Bell's allegations rely on a shopworn "caricature" of DeLay as an ethics violator.

"In the absence of an agenda and accomplishments, Democrats' over-reliance on `caricature assassination' is a clear signal that they do not take seriously the challenges we face at this important time," Grella said.

DeLay and the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee are the subject of a grand jury investigation in Austin being led by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. The investigation focuses on whether TRM spent corporate money to influence the 2002 state House races in violation of Texas law.

Antagonism between Bell and DeLay began shortly after Bell came to office in 2003, when DeLay made it clear he planned to push a redrawing of congressional district lines that would eliminate Bell's Houston district.

The plan pushed by DeLay was aimed at giving Republicans greater control of the state's congressional delegation. The plan also made it harder for white Democrats like Bell to win re-election by placing them in new districts with a greater share of minority voters.

Under the plan, which DeLay contends better reflects voting patterns in a state in which all statewide officials are Republicans, the GOP has a shot at winning 22 of the state's 32 congressional districts.

Bell lost his seat in March to former Harris County Justice of the Peace Al Green, who is black. Bell's term in Congress is up at the end of the year.
If Bell's ethics complaint gets any traction in the House, it could help him in any future statewide race or Democratic primary race.

Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Bell's filing against DeLay will be a test of the House ethics system.

"It's not like the Republicans are suddenly going to say, `Oh, we have this bad guy in our midst,'" Ornstein said. "What it will do is provide yet another story about DeLay, and it puts him right back into the controversy that he has courted for so long."

Under rules of the House committee, members have between five and 14 days to determine whether a complaint meets the committee standards. Members can ask for successive 45-day periods to consider the matter.

"The odds of the committee doing anything in the short-term are very slim," Ornstein said. "What is also true is that the last thing House Republicans want to do is rush to judgment against Tom DeLay."