Sunday, July 11, 2004

Of the five Republicans investigating an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, four have received campaign contributions from DeLay's political action committee, splitting $28,504 over the past seven years, records show.

Reviewers of DeLay's ethics got his money

Four of five GOP members of secretive panel received campaign donations

By Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, July 11, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Of the five Republicans investigating an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, four have received campaign contributions from DeLay's political action committee, splitting $28,504 over the past seven years, records show.

The contributions, all delivered before the ethics committee received the DeLay complaint June 15, highlight the conflict-of-interest pitfalls and awkward situations spawned by the U.S. House's decision to police itself on ethics.

"I think all the members hate" serving on the committee, said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan government watchdog.

"You're put in the position of either doing nothing -- which is what they generally do -- in which case you are fairly criticized for not taking your job seriously. On the other hand, you can try to enforce the rules and get all the other members angry at you," said Noble, who spent 13 years as general counsel for the Federal Election Commission.

Those associated with the ethics committee, officialy known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, disagree, though they would not comment on the record. No other committee operates like the ethics panel. Meetings are closed to the public, investigations are rarely acknowledged, and all participants, from the 10 representatives to the newest clerk, must swear to reveal nothing confidential. Staff members are banned from working on political campaigns.

It is the only House committee with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans; all other panels are stacked in favor of the majority party.

Equal representation is designed to derail purely partisan attacks. To move forward, a complaint must sway at least one member of the opposition party, but equality also raises the specter of party line votes.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, served four years on the ethics committee, including two as chairman, and said trumping party loyalty can be difficult.

"I see it as sometimes the Democrats lapse into bloc voting, and no matter what evidence is presented to investigate a Democrat, sometimes there is real resistance to going forward with an investigation. Of course, I suspect either side will be tempted with that," he said.

"That's not a comment on current (committee) members. I just don't know," said Smith, whose district includes western Travis and Hays counties.

Smith doesn't know because committee members may not discuss their investigations with any outsider. Only the Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat, after consulting with each other, can discuss publicly what takes place around the 15-foot-long, purple-leather-topped conference table that dominates the committee's meeting room in the Capitol basement.

Such secrecy is intended to protect the innocent, Smith said, but Noble argued that the closed-door approach favors inaction and incumbent protection.

Self-policing also sets up awkward confrontations, particularly in the House, where members need one another's support to succeed, he said.

Investigating DeLay could magnify the uncomfortable moments because he is more than a financial patron of four committee members; as the House's second-ranking Republican, he's also their boss, Noble said.

Smith is confident the ethics committee can do its job.

"I haven't detected any hesitancy in investigating individuals when the evidence is clear," he said.

DeLay is his party's most prolific fund-raiser in the House. His political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, has raised almost $2.7 million during this election cycle, spreading $623,000 among 75 House candidates, many of them incumbents. House Democratic leaders also give freely to members of their caucus.

Given DeLay's largesse and his drive to expand the Republican majority beyond its 22-seat House advantage, it's not surprising that ethics committee members are among the many recipients of the PAC's cash.

The breakdown, according to Federal Election Commission records from 1997 through May 2004, is:

* $14,777 for Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri. The latest contributions, totaling $9,000, were in 2000.

* $10,553 for Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, with $10,000 coming this year.

* $1,764 for Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois in 1998.

* $1,410 for Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, also in 1998.

* Chairman Joel Hefley of Colorado received no money from DeLay's political action committee.

In addition, DeLay's PAC gave money to most members of the "ethics pool," a group designated by House Speaker Dennis Hastert to serve on potential investigative subcommittees. The PAC contributed $65,902 to eight of the 10 Republican members, ranging from $525 to Rep. Sam Johnson of Dallas to $20,000 for Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Election Commission records show.

Republicans say the money will not influence the committee, noting that similar contributions from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't hinder the panel. A two-year investigation into activities related to Gingrich's political action committee resulted in a $300,000 fine and the first reprimand of a sitting speaker in 1997.

That year, the House changed its rules, stopping outside organizations from filing ethics complaints against members of Congress. Only representatives may level ethics charges, though the committee may still initiate its own investigations. The new rules led to a seven-year gap during which no complaints were filed -- until Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, broke the informal truce with his charges against DeLay.

Bell claimed DeLay illegally solicited campaign contributions in return for legislative favors and laundered illegal corporate contributions for use in Texas elections. Bell also alleged that DeLay improperly used his office to solicit help from federal agencies in searching for Democratic legislators who slipped out of Texas during last year's redistricting fight.

DeLay, who says the charges are unfounded and amateurish, has until July 22 to formally answer the complaint, if he wishes, but last week declined to say if he would.

The committee's next public step will be to dismiss the charges or to create an investigative subcommittee -- with two Republicans and two Democrats -- a decision that must be made by the first week of August, though more time can be requested.

Bell's complaint has energized liberal and conservative watchdog groups, eight of which united in March to call for a more open ethics process.

"You start with allowing outside groups to file complaints, then you have more transparency so the public understands what the ethics committee is doing," said Noble, whose Center for Responsive Politics was among the eight groups. "You don't get the sense that the ethics committee sees its role as being the representative of the public.

"The whole process is one that is designed to favor inaction, favor secrecy and favor the members," he said.

Leaders of both parties adamantly oppose the suggestions, noting that outside groups often follow political agendas and that secrecy is essential because unfounded accusations can kill a political career.

Smith, the former ethics committee chairman, believes Congress has proved capable of investigating itself.

"I think it is good that the ethics committee consists of members of Congress. They best understand the institution and best understand . . . the nature of politics," he said.