Tom DeLay is a marked man. If there were ever any doubt, last week settled it. There were gleeful headlines everywhere about the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee (a.k.a. the Ethics Committee) admonishing the House majority leader. Lost in the orgy of delight was the fact that the committee found the ethics accusations against DeLay–filed by lame-duck Rep. Chris Bell (D., Tex.)–”unsubstantiated.”
Following his primary defeat by an under-funded challenger, Bell had nothing to lose and filed a case against DeLay reportedly drafted by a left-wing “watchdog” group. According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Bell worked on drafting his June 15 complaint with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). A report in the congressional newspaper The Hill said CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, a former aide to ultra-leftist Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), drafted the filing for Bell. CREW itself is clearly a group with an agenda. In a memorandum alleging that such assistance by an outside group violates House rules, DeLay’s attorney Ed Bethune notes that from 1995 until this year, CREW’s board members and staff have contributed $125,245 to Democrats and only $16,013 to Republicans.
Since 1997–when Congress tried to get the ethics wars that roiled the 1990s under control–non-members have not been permitted to file ethics complaints. A member can transmit information from an outsider provided the member certifies that he believes the information is submitted in good faith and that it warrants the Ethics Committee’s review. Rep. Bell’s complaint did not disclose CREW’s involvement in what Bethune now alleges amounts to a fraud on the House: “The false allegations of a private outside group were presented to the committee as the official work of a member.”
Democrats obviously hope to disable the House GOP’s operations by taking down DeLay–who, whatever else you think of him, is effective–by means fair or foul. On March 10, The Hill reported, “House Democratic leaders are honing an election strategy to taint the entire Republican caucus by demonizing Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).” Indeed. Two weeks later, CREW sent a letter to every House member seeking someone to file the allegations against DeLay. In Chris Bell, DeLay’s partisan foes found their host.
Bell’s complaint alleged serious ethics abuses. The first allegation accused DeLay of “soliciting campaign contributions from Westar Energy in return for legislative assistance on the energy bill.” Here the committee found the charge wholly without merit. There was no improper solicitation of contributions and DeLay performed no impermissible special favor for Westar. The committee noted the “significant gap” between Bell’s rhetoric and the reality.
DeLay was admonished, however, for attending a golf fundraiser in June 2002 at which Westar executives were present, because it created an “appearance” that donors were enjoying special access to a member of Congress while energy legislation was pending. Every member of Congress is vulnerable to this same admonishment should their whereabouts at any specific time come under the same intense scrutiny as Tom DeLay’s. Two years later, by the way, the energy legislation is still pending.
A second count alleging wrongful conduct with respect to DeLay’s role in a Texas political-action committee was deferred because the committee recognized that whatever his involvement had been, it was unrelated to his officials duties as a member of the House.
The third count was based on a request by DeLay’s office to the Federal Aviation Administration to locate the aircraft carrying fleeing Democratic state lawmakers being sought by Texas law-enforcement officials. This count was dismissed with the committee noting that the incident had already been thoroughly investigated by the FAA’s independent inspector general, who found that no procedures were violated and that the information sought was publicly available on the Internet. The Department of Justice’s inspector general also investigated the charge that DeLay’s office had improperly involved the department and concluded that it had not.
The House Ethics Committee was on notice about how partisan groups would try to use the ethics process to score political points, particularly against Tom DeLay. It has been widely reported that “good government groups” are frustrated with their inability to file complaints directly with the House, since it is assumed that their motivation would be to damage political enemies and fuel fundraising letters. This concern was borne out in the case of the Bell complaint against DeLay. A bitter lame duck–Bell lost his seat thanks to the reapportionment he blames on DeLay–was willing to adopt unsubstantiated charges designed to score partisan points.
The House Standards of Official Conduct Committee now intends to review Bell’s actions. It’s a little late. The committee has already been used. Any action against Bell–who is out of there in any case–won’t get the laudatory headlines that met their scolding of DeLay. But the committee is not in the business of seeking headlines. Or is it?