WASHINGTON — The House ethics committee chairman who presided over three rebukes of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was bounced from the job Wednesday and replaced by a Republican congressman from Washington state.
The new chairman is Rep. Doc Hastings, the committee's second-ranking Republican. He was named by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to take the gavel from Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.).
In addition, Hastert appointed three new members to the panel, including two — Reps. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — whose political action committees have contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund. Smith's PAC contributed $5,000 in 2001 and an additional $5,000 between July and September 2004; Cole's gave $5,000 between July and September 2004.
The third new Republican member is Rep. Melissa A. Hart of Pennsylvania.
Hastert had indicated that he would not reappoint Hefley because House GOP rules limited the terms of committee members. Hefley joined the committee, which is charged with investigating and disciplining House members, in 1997 and became chairman in 2001. His supporters argued that the rules could be waived.
Democrats and congressional watchdog groups accused Hastert of retaliating against Hefley for the rebukes to DeLay, the House's No. 2 leader.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Hefley's ouster and his replacement with a "party loyalist" was "further evidence that there is a purge underway of any Republican who does not precisely toe the party line."
The shake-up of the panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, comes in the wake of a Texas grand jury indictment of three fundraisers with ties to DeLay. They are accused of illegally funneling corporate contributions to GOP candidates for state office. DeLay has called the investigation politically motivated and said he had not been contacted by prosecutors.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington watchdog group, assailed the changes. The test for the new chairman and members will be this, he said: "Will they simply carry out the obvious game plan of the House Republican leadership to shut down ethics enforcement in the House, or will they have the courage to carry out the ethics enforcement responsibilities that go with their positions?"
Hefley, who had predicted his own removal, said in a statement Wednesday that it was "somewhat of a relief" to be free of the responsibility of being chairman.
Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said Hefley had served for the period allowed under House GOP term limits. He accused Democrats of injecting partisanship into the ethics process.
Many Republicans were angry with Hefley for admonishing DeLay last year on the hardball political tactics that DeLay's backers credited with strengthening the GOP's majority in the House and advancing the Republican legislative agenda.
So popular is DeLay that current and former members of Congress and their PACs contributed $174,500 to DeLay's legal defense fund in the last quarter of 2004, according to Public Citizen, a watchdog group.
The House this year also voted to change its rules to make it harder for the committee to investigate its members. It now requires a majority of the committee, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, to approve a probe.
Citing the rule change and Hefley's ouster, Common Cause President Chellie Pingree said Wednesday that "it is hard to imagine there will be much activity" from the committee.
Hastings, who will turn 64 on Monday, was elected to Congress in the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. He said Wednesday that he had not sought to lead the panel. It is considered one of the most thankless jobs in Congress. But he pledged to do "my best to carry out my duties fairly, with utmost respect for this institution — and without regard to friendship, favor or political party."
Hastings has served on the ethics panel since 2001. The following year, he chaired the investigative subcommittee whose recommendation led to Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s expulsion from Congress following the Ohio Democrat's conviction on bribery and corruption charges.
He also was among the committee members who voted unanimously in October to admonish DeLay for allegedly involving a federal agency in a Texas partisan matter and staging a fundraising event in a way that appeared to link access to political donations.
In a separate rebuke issued a week earlier, also by unanimous vote, DeLay was criticized for saying he would support the campaign of a retiring congressman's son to succeed his father if the congressman voted for legislation adding a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times