DeLay: Ethics, Shmethics

The Bug Man gets a helping hand from the GOP caucus, ethics committee

It was a mixed bag on the Tom DeLay Watch last week, as congressional actions taken on his behalf seemed only to deepen the public relations swamp slowly sucking in the House majority leader. House Republicans, flush with electoral victory, decided they would reverse the decadelong rule that any House leader under indictment must step down until the indictment is resolved. The action – on a motion from U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio – took place in the shadow of the ongoing investigation by Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle of DeLay-related campaign fundraising committees, marked most recently by the felony indictment of three DeLay associates.

The rule had been adopted in 1993 in an effort to embarrass House Ways and Means Chair Dan Rostenkowski, D-Illinois, after his indictment on corruption charges. Bonilla said he wanted to protect the GOP leadership from any "crackpot district attorney," echoing GOP dismissals of the Earle investigation. Earle responded, "The action by the members of the House ... 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."

A couple of days later, the House ethics committee issued a reproving letter to Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, whose complaint against DeLay earlier this year resulted in two formal admonitions of the Sugar Land Hammer. The committee charged Bell with including in his complaint "innuendo, speculative assertions, or conclusory statements," because he exaggerated the available evidence against DeLay concerning his relationship with Westar Energy and attempts to use the Federal Aviation Administration in tracking the Democratic Texas House Members who fled to Oklahoma in opposition to re-redistricting.

Bell said he "accepted the guidance of the committee," but distinguished the letter from the earlier formal "admonitions" addressed to DeLay. DeLay, for his part, denounced Bell as a "partisan stalker" and said the committee's letter "confirmed [Bell's] utter contempt for Congress. And by continuing their announced strategy to forgo the battle of ideas and instead personally attack Republican leaders, the Democrat Party has confirmed its utter contempt for the boundaries of political discourse."

It's not clear if that language meets the committee's standard of "innuendo, speculative assertions, or conclusory statements," and we're unlikely to find out. The public- advocacy groups that had worked with Bell on his complaint – the first by a member of Congress in seven years, when the committee stopped accepting outside complaints – said the letter would almost certainly discourage any future complaints, for they would effectively require that a complainant know the outcome before he or she submitted the complaint.

Said Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, "It will be nearly impossible for anyone to file a complaint that meets the committee's new standard. This provision effectively prohibits anyone from filing a complaint based on a reasonable belief that an ethics violation occurred." Citing the earlier vote of the GOP caucus on the leadership rule, Sloan added, "The only thing left to do is disband the ethics committee altogether and drop the pretense that the House takes ethics seriously."

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Tomstown, Tom DeLay, Henry Bonilla, Ronnie Earle, Chris Bell

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