Shooting the Messenger
November 22, 2004
The U.S. House Ethics Committee's latest action on a complaint brought against Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land is one more indication that the committee is a toothless tiger when it comes to investigating member's improprieties.
Lame duck Congressman Chris Bell filed the complaint in June following his defeat in the Democratic primary by Justice of the Peace Al Green. The complaint asked the committee to probe DeLay's involvement in questionable campaign contributions allegedly solicited and accepted by his political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority. Corporate contributions to the political action committee are the object of a Travis County investigation. Bell's complaint also cited reports that DeLay tried to enlist federal agencies to track down Texas House members who fled to Oklahoma in the summer of 2003 to thwart congressional redistricting, which GOP legislators were pursing at DeLay's request.
The House ethics committee eventually admonished DeLay for two transgressions alleged by Bell. (DeLay's career total is four). But Thursday the committee also slapped Bell with a printed warning for including innuendo and exaggeration in his filing. The warning also accused him of playing politics in subsequent press releases and public statements.
"It appears there is no purpose for including excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in a complaint," the committee declared, "except in an attempt to attract publicity and hence a political advantage."
Bell, an attorney and former Houston city councilman, says he simply summarized published allegations and asked for an investigation. He wonders how anyone can know whether a complaint is speculative or exaggerated until it has been thoroughly explored.
"We took the information that was available to us without any investigatory authority and cited how we believed it could have constituted violating the rules or the law," Bell said. "I'm pleased they chose to admonish Mr. DeLay, and I'm shocked he continues to misrepresent the actions of the committee." Bell says the letter to him focused on previously untested rules of congressional decorum and he accepts the committee's criticism.
DeLay wasted little time in playing his own politics with the letter by holding a news conference and telling reporters Bell "acted out of anger of losing his seat in Congress ... and turned his obsessive rage on me."
The letter even took a swipe at Bell aide Eric Burns, who had been quoted in the media challenging the ethics committee to "stand up for the integrity of the House, or they can protect politics as usual." It warned all members of Congress that they faced disciplinary action and rejection of any future ethics complaints if the filings contained unsubstantiated charges. It also issued a similar prohibition against criticizing the integrity of the committee or its members.
Bell cites the Republicans' change in their rules to protect DeLay's status as majority leader if he is indicted as evidence that legislators will go to great lengths to protect their own.
Will the committee's latest action discourage members of Congress from filing ethics complaints? Bell says, "We'll just have to wait and see."
Considering his complaint was the first lodged with the committee in seven years, it could well be a very long wait.