Talk of DeLay investigation swellsBy TODD J. GILLMAN / Dallas Morning News
October 2, 2004
WASHINGTON _ Pressure mounted last week for a full-scale investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, after the House ethics panel issued a rare public admonishment because he tried to trade political favors for a lawmaker's vote on the GOP Medicare drug plan.
"The ethical cloud surrounding Tom DeLay has quickly grown into a thunderstorm," said Rep. Chris Bell, the freshman Houston Democrat who has a separate ethics complaint pending against Mr. DeLay, R-Sugar Land. "The stench of corruption emanating from Mr. DeLay and his associates has become too pungent to ignore any longer, even in Washington."
Republicans dismissed such talk as partisan hyperbole, just as they assert that the Bell complaint and the recent indictments of three DeLay aides in Austin, by a grand jury directed by a Democratic prosecutor, are baseless and motivated by politics. They note Mr. Bell fell victim to redistricting, losing his seat in the primary.
The House ethics committee, which like its Senate counterpart is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, issued a unanimous admonishment of Mr. DeLay late Thursday night. He will not be punished, but the 10-member panel found that he acted improperly during the Medicare vote in November by offering to help get retiring Rep. Nick Smith's son elected to Congress. Mr. Smith declined the offer and stuck by his objections to the bill, which ended up passing by five votes.
Mr. DeLay said he accepted the committee's "guidance" and hadn't realized he would violate House rules by offering to endorse Brad Smith, who ended up losing an August primary. The ethics committee said that since it had never dealt with such a situation before, no punishment was warranted.
DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said the Democrats' "attempts to smear, demonize and vilify Republican leaders is all intended to influence next month's elections."
And he said the efforts to seek "revenge and retribution" through the courts and the House ethics process _ referring specifically to the Bell complaint, which alleges that Mr. DeLay abused his power and violated campaign finance laws in the redistricting fight _ "will seem as transparent to voters as it does to us."
Rep. Eric Cantor, the GOP's chief deputy whip, said the lack of punishment showed how minor the supposed infraction was, and predicted no political fallout. "Clearly, the members on our side see Tom Delay as a successful leader, and the Democrats are trying destroy him. He outmaneuvers them and outstrategizes them, so they're frustrated," he said.
Seven years had passed since any member of the House leadership was publicly reprimanded. In 1997, the panel fined then-Speaker Newt Gingrich $300,000 for misusing tax-exempt funds to promote the GOP agenda. Mr. DeLay himself received a lesser "private" rebuke in 1999 for threatening retaliation against a trade group that hired a Democrat as its top lobbyist.
Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said the latest finding, combined with that 1999 transgression, suggests a pattern of behavior that demands a "full and credible" investigation of the Bell allegations.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called it "yet another ethical cloud hanging over the Capitol. ... Mr. DeLay's continued abuse of power ... raises the question as to why the Republicans need the heavy hand of their party-discipline enforcer."
Democrats called on GOP candidates in Texas and nationwide to return "tainted" funds from two DeLay-created political committees whose directors were indicted in Austin.
Many Democrats say they expect voters to hold the allegations against their opponents on Election Day.
But Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, called it ridiculous to say that the ethics complaints and indictments will affect House races in Texas.
"Tom DeLay's been found guilty of nothing," he said.
With Congress winding down toward an election season recess, House Republicans forced yet another vote intended to put Democrats on the stop _ on a bill to lift all gun control laws in the District of Columbia. It passed 250-171, though it's going nowhere in the Senate.
Four of the five Texas Democrats fighting to survive redistricting sided with Republicans. All consider themselves gun-rights supporters: Reps. Chet Edwards, Max Sandlin of Marshall, Charlie Stenholm of Abilene and Nick Lampson of Beaumont. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas, who faces GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, voted no.