Thursday, November 18, 2004

House Republicans, hoping to shield Majority Leader Tom DeLay from potential indictments in Travis County, voted Wednesday to scrap a rule requiring party leaders to temporarily step down if accused of a felony.

House GOP approves rule change to protect DeLay

By Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, November 18, 2004

WASHINGTON – House Republicans, hoping to shield Majority Leader Tom DeLay from potential indictments in Travis County, voted Wednesday to scrap a rule requiring party leaders to temporarily step down if accused of a felony.

Democrats leveled charges of hypocrisy, but Republicans insisted that the change in party rules was a matter of fairness.

"In this country, you're innocent until you are proven guilty, and the rule we passed today adheres to that principle," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, who introduced the indictment change to House Republican Conference rules governing the 109th Congress, which begins in January.

"An indictment is nothing more than a legal accusation which starts the criminal justice process," said Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, appointed to address reporters because of his 20-year career as a judge.

Republicans adopted the indictment rule in 1993 to set themselves apart from Democrats, who had endured a series of scandals after four decades as the House majority party. Republicans claimed majority status one year later in part by portraying Democrats as corrupted by power and arrogance.

Democrats found irony in the rules change.

"Today, Republicans sold their collective soul to maintain their grip on power," said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "They unabashedly abandoned any pretense of holding themselves to a high ethical standard by deciding to ignore criminal indictments of their leaders."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, "It's just interesting that the first order of business following the election, on the part of the Republican majority, is to lower the ethical standards for their leaders in the Congress."

Republicans said the rule was required to protect DeLay from a "partisan witch hunt" by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat investigating allegations of campaign-finance irregularities in the 2002 Texas elections.

A Travis County grand jury indicted three DeLay associates in September on charges that included money laundering and accepting unlawful corporate contributions. The corporate money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House, which in turn let Republicans redraw congressional districts to oust six Democratic incumbents. Republicans say Earle's investigation is payback.

Despite the anger at Earle expressed by several Republicans, Bonilla said the rule wasn't aimed at the Austin prosecutor.

"We are trying to protect members of our leadership from any crackpot district attorney in any state in the nation from taking on a political agenda and indicting any member for any frivolous cause," Bonilla said.

Earle on Wednesday refused to discuss details of the investigation, but he answered charges of partisan politics by noting that he has prosecuted four Republicans and 12 Democrats while in office.

"The action by members of the House today has no effect on the ongoing investigation by the grand jury, but it should be alarming to the public to see their leaders substitute their judgment for that of the law enforcement process," Earle said.

According to lawyers for DeLay, prosecutors indicated last summer that the Sugar Land Republican is not a specific target of the investigation. However, when the September indictments were announced, Earle refused to rule anybody out of the investigation. The term of the grand jury, the fourth to examine 2002 election spending, ends Dec. 31.

Bonilla's original amendment would have thrown out the indictment rule, but opposition from other Republicans in a closed session Wednesday led to a compromise.

The newly written rule, approved overwhelmingly by voice vote, will require felony indictments to be reviewed within 30 days by the Republican Steering Committee, a 28-member group of party leaders that doles out committee assignments and discusses policy.

If that panel determines an indictment to be frivolous or politically motivated, it could recommend to the Republican Conference that no action is required, Carter said. The rule applies to party leaders and chairmen of committees and subcommittees.

The rule does not address indictments against members of the Steering Committee, which would include DeLay, but Carter said internal rules would protect conflicts of interest. "Anyone subject to a vote doesn't have a vote and is removed from the room" during discussions, said Carter, a Steering Committee member.

A felony conviction would automatically remove a member from Republican leadership, the new rule states.

Rep. Peter King, a moderate Republican from New York, backed the change. "The standards of a grand jury indictment are totally different than the standards of a trial," he said.

But another moderate Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, feared his party was in danger of losing the moral high ground.

"What I think is happening is well intended, but I think too many of my members are slipping into business as usual. We're going to do it just the way the Democrats did it," Shays said. "I just think it's a slippery slope."

Bonilla said he did not speak to DeLay or his staff about the rules change until after his amendment was filed. DeLay did not discuss the amendment at Wednesday's meeting, several representatives and aides said.

Carter called the change a matter of fairness.

"We shouldn't have rules that make someone have to be removed from office because of an accusation," Carter said. "People looked at it and realized the potential for injustice to officeholders in the House."

But Democrats said the new rule indicates power run amok in the majority party.

"Apparently, rules just don't apply to Republicans," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. "This latest scheme signals the dangers that lie ahead in a new Congress where Tom DeLay wields even more power for his extreme agenda."