Bell’s Complaint Imperils Ethics Truce

Posted June 14, 2004 at 6:35pm

In the latest threat to the tenuous “truce” between the two parties on ethics matters, Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) will file a complaint today alleging that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has engaged in a variety of illicit activities over the past several years.

Among the allegations Bell is forwarding to the ethics panel are that a DeLay-affiliated group improperly accepted campaign contributions from Westar Energy Corp. in return for a legislative favor, and that he helped illegally funnel corporate money to GOP candidates in Lone Star State legislative races.

Bell’s office would not release a copy of the complaint Monday, although the freshman Democrat, who is leaving Congress at the end of this session thanks to a DeLay-backed redistricting plan, is expected to file it this afternoon and will follow with a press conference.

Eric Burns, Bell’s communications director, said the complaint being submitted “is substantial and it is serious.” Burns said his boss believes that filing a complaint with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, will force the House to look into DeLay’s activities.

Bell’s intention to file an ethics complaint against DeLay was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The ethics committee will have 14 calendar days or five legislative days, whichever elapses first, to determine whether Bell’s complaint satisfies panel guidelines for a properly submitted complaint.

If it does, the chairman and ranking member, Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), will then have another 45 calendar days or five legislative days (whichever period is longer) to act on the complaint, either by dismissing it outright, forming an investigative subcommittee using members of the full committee, or seeking more time to study it.

DeLay will also be given 30 days from the time the ethics committee formally notifies him that a complaint has been filed to reply to the charges.

Bell’s office openly admits that most of the information that the Texas Democrat will use for his filing comes from press reports, and Bell has been working with Melanie Sloan, a former aide to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) who now runs a Congressional watchdog group, to draft the complaint.

Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and has been pressing for an investigation of DeLay on several fronts. Sloan’s group has asked the IRS to audit DeLay’s leadership political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, after it failed to disclose that liquor company Bacardi provided free alcohal and merchandise to lawmakers during a February 2002 fundraiser for ARMPAC in Puerto Rico.

Sloan also filed a complaint recently with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Bacardi violated federal law by failing to report some campaign contributions, including $2,500 it gave to ARMPAC last year.

In March of this year Sloan wrote to all Members, seeking someone to file an ethics complaint against DeLay, Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) over their dealings with Westar. No charges were ever filed.

Sloan did file a complaint against Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on the Westar case, but that complaint was dismissed.

DeLay aides characterized Bell’s charges as a last-ditch attempt to smear the Majority Leader from a Democrat who was forced from office through DeLay’s efforts to push through a new redistricting plan. Bell was defeated by Al Green in the March Democratic primary for the new 9th district seat.

“These are warmed-over and factually deficient allegations from a bitter partisan on his way out of office. This election year scorched-earth strategy is doomed to fail, as have all previous attempts of this cynical and sad sort that make a mockery of the process,” said Jonathan Grella, a DeLay spokesman, in a statement released by the Majority Leader’s office.

“In the absence of an agenda or leadership, Democrats’ desperate over-reliance on ‘caricature assassination’ is a clear signal that they do not take seriously the challenges our country faces.”

Bell’s action is a blow to the unofficial ethics truce that has existed between the two parties since Democrats used multiple ethics filings to help undermine support for then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Since that time, House ethics rules have been changed so that only Members can file against one another. The ethics committee can take up a case on its own authority, as has happened recently with allegations that some House Republicans improperly pressured Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) during a Nov. 22, 2003, vote on Medicare reform, or in response to a criminal case.

Several well-placed Democratic aides said party leaders got little advance warning about Bell’s complaint. These sources said that late last week, Bell’s staff contacted the offices of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to give them a heads up, but the Texas Democrat has yet to talk to the leaders directly.

“The decision to file it was Congressman Bell’s,” said Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman. “Once he files it, the ethics committee should look into it. These are serious allegations.”

Democratic insiders acknowledged an ethics war might ensue once Bell files his complaint, but party leaders will not discourage him or any other Member from pursuing a legitimate charge.

“We can’t be worried about that,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

“If we have to turn a blind eye on all the complaints that come our way from citizens’ private groups or groups that follow these issues, we’re doing this Congress a disservice and admitting the majority party can get away with murder,” added another leadership staffer.

Bell’s spokesman said the Texas Democrat had been working on the complaint “for months, since well before Thanksgiving,” and denied it was political payback for Bell’s defeat in his primary.

GOP insiders don’t believe that Bell’s filing against DeLay will result in Republican retaliation against Democrats, and DeLay isn’t expected to urge any GOP lawmakers to file their own charges.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” said one House GOP staffer close to the issue. “If all Bell has is press reports, then this will go away soon. If not, we’ll have to see.”

Bell’s allegations against DeLay cover several areas.

In mid-2002, executives at Kansas-based Westar Energy steered more than $56,000 in hard- and soft-money contributions to DeLay, Barton, Tauzin and other GOP lawmakers as Westar sought their help in inserting a provision, potentially worth billions of dollars to the company, into an energy bill then making its way through Congress.

Of that total, $25,000 went to Texans for a Republican Majority, a PAC focusing on Texas races that was founded by DeLay. Westar executives attended a TRMPAC-sponsored retreat with DeLay at a Virginia resort soon after the donation was made.

Internal Westar e-mails describe a plan to use the campaign donations to “get a seat at the table” of a House-Senate conference committee that was working on the energy bill, and said DeLay’s “agreement was necessary” before Westar could move forward on getting its measure placed in the energy package. The Westar provision, which was inserted in the bill by Barton, was later dropped after Westar came under investigation for alleged wrongdoing, including securities fraud.

At the time, DeLay’s office insisted that DeLay didn’t solicit the Westar donation to TRMPAC and rejected any suggestion that there was a link between campaign donations and legislative actions by the then Majority Whip.

TRMPAC has also come under scrutiny for its role in the 2002 legislative races in Texas.

It raised more than $570,000 in corporate contributions during the 2001-02 cycle, money that could not be used on Texas state races. TRMPAC reportedly used those corporate funds to pay for polling, consultants and other campaign-related activities, but TRMPAC officials claim not to have passed on any corporate donations to state candidates, although the group did donate more than $150,000 to those races.

TRMPAC did not disclose the corporate donations on its filings with Texas authorities, but it did report them to the IRS. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is probing TRMPAC and the Texas Association of Business for their activities in the 2002 Texas state races, and he has issued dozens of subpoenas during his investigation.

Republicans won their first majority in the Texas Legislature since Reconstruction, and jammed through a Congressional redistricting plan that has already led one House Democrat to retire, two primary defeats and a party switch. Bell was one of those Members who lost his primary.

DeLay has denied having any oversight of TRMPAC’s operations, and has formally cut his ties with the group.

But the Texas Republican has been a frequent target for Democratic ethics charges over the past decade.

In 1998, the ethics committee investigated whether DeLay had improperly pressured the Electronics Industry Association after it hired former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy (Okla.). DeLay wanted former Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) or another Republican hired instead. The ethics committee sent DeLay a private letter admonishing him.

In May 2000, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a racketeering lawsuit against DeLay charging that the Texas Republican and several of his former aides, as well as groups they controlled, engaged in a host of illegal actions, including extortion and money laundering.

DeLay vehemently denied the charges, which, like the Bell complaint, were based on press reports. The DCCC later dropped the suit, but not before DeLay ran up more than $500,000 in legal bills.

Last year, watchdog group Common Cause sought support for an ethics complaint against DeLay after he set up a new charity to help underwrite the cost of parties and other events at this year’s GOP convention in New York City. For $500,000, potential donors even got dinner with DeLay and his wife, Christine.

No Member agreed to file a complaint against DeLay, and he later said the new charity would not participate in any convention-related events.