Tom Delay setting new 'Salacious' standards in Congressional ethics

Illustration By Doug Potter

The Tom DeLay Watch is getting more entertaining by the moment. Last week featured another letter of "admonition" for the Bug Man from the House ethics committee, following close behind an earlier one in response to his strong-arming the Medicare vote last November. This time he was whacked on the wrist for:

  • creating the "appearance of impropriety under House standards of conduct" for holding an energy interest fundraiser while crucial energy legislation was pending before a congressional conference committee; and

  • raising concerns of "using governmental resources for a political undertaking" for asking the Federal Aviation Administration to track the missing Texas House Democrats in May of 2003.

    The committee deferred action on the most serious charge – that the Sugar Land Republican had used the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC to "'funnel' corporate funds to Texas state campaigns in 2002" in violation of Texas law – pending the outcome of the ongoing TRMPAC criminal investigation in Travis County. There was news this week on that front as well, as the TRMPAC players Jim Ellis, John Colyandro, and Warren RoBold took their first perp walk in an Austin courtroom, amidst more published reports that when they were working campaign donors, the group might as well have been called "TOMPAC." And there is also the little matter of a congressional (and potentially criminal) investigation of DeLay associates Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, who apparently traded on their connections with the majority leader to scam six Indian tribes (including the El Paso Tiguas) to the tune of $66 million.

    DeLay, who had been reasonably contrite after the committee's first reproof (perhaps because it was based on the testimony of Michigan Republican Nick Smith, who backed away from his most serious charge of bribery), has responded more characteristically to the latest action – simultaneously bragging that he has been exonerated and insisting that the complaint, filed by outgoing Democratic Rep. Chris Bell of Houston, "should have been thrown out immediately." His House posse has been right behind him – this week ethics committee Chair Joel Hefley, R-Colorado, told The Hill that he has been "threatened" with retaliation by unnamed colleagues, despite the fact that the bipartisan committee's vote to admonish DeLay had been unanimous.

    Shoot the Messenger

    Indeed the committee, especially Hefley and ranking minority member Alan Mollohan, D-West Virginia, had bent over backward to avoid too heavy a sanction against the imperious House majority leader, declining to open a full investigation and inventing the term "letter of admonition" to cover this sort of wrist-slap. The committee's report is excruciatingly polite in underreading the available evidence against DeLay (so it would not be required to open a full investigation) and in its tepid warning: "It is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions to assure that you are in full compliance at all times with the applicable House rules and standards of conduct." "The consensus feeling," Hefley said afterward, "was that he had been a couple of steps across the line and we ought to point that out."

    That's telling him. Yet in response to this milquetoast tsk-tsking, clearly intended to put the matter to rest, DeLay still couldn't restrain himself. "I am very pleased that the ethics committee and these honorable people who serve on the ethics committee have dismissed the frivolous charges brought against me," he declared inaccurately, and then launched a retaliation campaign. His lawyer, Ed Bethune, sent a long memorandum to the House Rules Committee, accusing the ethics committee of falling for a partisan attack and suggesting that ethics rules be rewritten to forbid complaints from "lame-duck" members like Bell – although it is patently obvious, after a seven-year House "truce" (read: mutual extortion) on ethics complaints, that Bell could act only because he is effectively beyond DeLay's retaliation.

    Hidden in Plain Sight

    The ethics committee (officially, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) tip-toed among the land mines – even when it's abundantly clear that Westar Energy executives understood that if they were to buy access to DeLay on the pending energy bill, $25,000 was the minimum bid. Even so, Bethune's memorandum is a strenuous diatribe, accusing Bell and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the nonpartisan group that made no secret of helping Bell compile the complaint, of engaging in a secret cabal intended to bewitch the committee. (In fact, the committee report had already dismissed such notions.) Bethune (who apparently believes "salacious" means "sensational" rather than "lustful" or "bawdy") accuses Bell and CREW of all sorts of outrages, like simultaneously keeping their sinister collaboration secret and bragging about it in newspaper ads exhorting the ethics committee to act.

    Bethune singles out CREW perhaps because its director is Melanie Sloan, formerly a Democratic congressional staffer, yet he has to acknowledge that the Congressional Ethics Coalition advocating action against DeLay included the usual range of good-government suspects: CREW, Judicial Watch, Common Cause, The Campaign Legal Center, Center for Responsive Politics, Democracy 21, Public Campaign, and Public Citizen. All the groups are either notoriously bipartisan or else, like Judicial Watch, more usually associated with conservative causes. Last week Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch snorted that he's been accused of many things, but fronting for Democrats is not one of them, and Sloan curtly dismissed DeLay's attempt to muddy the waters. "The Rules Committee has no jurisdiction over me," she said. "I'm a private citizen."

    Nonetheless, Bethune called for Bell and CREW to be cited for "contempt of Congress" or otherwise sanctioned for violating the prohibition against outside assistance to House members for official business. Bethune is speaking for Tom DeLay, rightfully notorious for eliminating the middlemen and inviting the business lobby directly into his congressional office to draft their own legislation. To paraphrase Ronnie Earle, being called contemptible by Tom DeLay is like being called a thug by Tony Soprano. end story

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    Tomstown, Tom DeLay, Texans for a Republican Majority, TRMPAC, Ed Bethune, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Melanie Sloan

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