GOP. to Make Ethics Inquiries Harder to Begin
Published on Thursday, December 30, 2004 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
G.O.P. to Make Ethics Inquiries Harder to Begin
The committee chair might be removed for allowing investigations of Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
by Carl Hulse and Katharine Q. Seelye

WASHINGTON - In the wake of back-to-back ethics slaps at House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, House Republicans are preparing to make it more difficult to begin ethics investigations and could remove the GOP chairman who presided over the admonishments delivered to DeLay last fall.

Members of outside groups that monitor the ethics process said they were not certain what would be proposed but they expected Republicans to try to deter new cases, particularly in light of the possibility of more growing out of an inquiry into lobbying on Indian gambling issues.

A leadership aide said that a package of rules changes to be presented to the House when the 109th Congress convenes Tuesday could include a plan that would require a majority vote of the ethics panel to pursue a formal investigation. At present, a deadlock on the panel, which is evenly split between the two parties, keeps the case pending. The possible change, the aide said, would mean that a tie vote would effectively dismiss the case.

The aide said the change would instill more bipartisanship in ethics cases by requiring that members of both parties support inquiries. But Democrats and outside groups said the proposal would dilute an already-weak ethics process.

It remained uncertain whether Rep. Joel Hefley (R., Colo.), the current head of the panel, would stay in that post. A spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.), who would play a chief role in determining the appointment, said no decision had been made.

Many rank-and-file Republicans openly expressed dissatisfaction with Hefley after the committee reports critical of DeLay were issued, saying he had allowed Democrats to score political points against the majority leader for conduct that did not merit such scrutiny. But the potential for change in the chairmanship has already drawn fire from Democrats and outside ethics watchdogs.

"It is our responsibility to uphold a high ethical standard," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in a statement issued yesterday. "Removing a chair of the ethics committee for upholding that standard would be a stain on the House of Representatives."

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public-interest group, said: "The removal of Rep. Hefley would constitute a declaration of war against ethics in the House."

Democrats are planning to try next week to force a floor vote on a proposal requiring any member of either party's leadership to step aside if indicted on a criminal charge. The move would reverse last month's vote by Republicans - taken in a closed-door party meeting - to eliminate such a requirement for Republicans to protect DeLay should he be indicted in a campaign-finance investigation under way in Texas.

In Texas, state Republican lawmakers are considering some maneuvers of their own in light of the investigation. One proposal would take authority for prosecuting the campaign-finance case away from the Democratic district attorney in Austin, who has already indicted three DeLay associates, and give it to the state attorney general, a Republican. Another possible move would legalize corporate campaign contributions such as the ones that figure into the state case, potentially undermining the prosecution.

The October rulings by the House ethics committee regarding DeLay came after years of inaction by the panel - a stance attributed to an unofficial truce between the two parties over the filing of complaints after a series of bitter and partisan ethics fights in the 1990s.

In the first October ruling, DeLay was admonished for going too far in trying to persuade a lawmaker to support a Medicare prescription-drug law. In the second, the panel criticized him for giving the appearance of granting undue access at a fund-raiser and for involving a federal agency in a political matter in Texas.

But the panel also later chastised Rep. Chris Bell (D., Texas), who opened a complaint against DeLay after losing his own seat, for exaggerating the allegations. Republicans said the tone of the complaint showed that lawmakers needed to be held more accountable for ethics filings, and some called for new controls on complaints and a ban on using outside groups to prepare them.

Representative David Dreier, Republican of California and chairman of the Rules Committee, has indicated he will consider changes in the ethics process but his office could provide no details Wednesday night.

Members of outside groups that monitor the ethics process said they were not certain what would be proposed but they expected Republicans to try to deter new cases, particularly in light of the possibility of more growing out of an inquiry into lobbying on Indian gambling issues.

"They are trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and it is all seemingly to protect one man," said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch and part of a coalition pressing for stronger ethics rules.

Mr. Fitton and others said an effort to oust Mr. Hefley would smack of retaliation.

"The removal of Representative Hefley would constitute a declaration of war against ethics in the House," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that a possible replacement for Mr. Hefley would be Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a former member of the panel. Mr. Smith this year contributed $5,000 from his campaign account to Mr. DeLay's legal defense. Aides said Mr. Smith had not been approached about the post.

In Texas, no bills have been introduced regarding the jurisdictional issues or campaign contributions. But Andrew Taylor, a prominent Republican lawyer in Austin, recently told The Austin American-Statesman that he expected to be lobbying to legalize corporate donations when the Legislature returns in January.

And Texas Republicans have made it clear that they want to transfer the authority for prosecuting the case away from Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney, and give it to Greg Abbott, the state attorney general.

Earlier this year, the executive committee of the Republican Party of Texas endorsed transferring state money for the public integrity unit from the Travis County district attorney to the state attorney general.

The unit was moved to the county office by the State Legislature, not the State Constitution, so the Legislature can return it, said Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for the Texas Republican Party. Ms. Sylvester said that allowing the local district attorney's office to prosecute state cases because it covered the state capital is analogous to giving a District of Columbia district attorney the power to prosecute members of Congress.

© Copyright 2004 NY Times News Service