Truce Broken

Posted June 15, 2004 at 6:00pm

We’re half-glad that freshman Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) has broken the cozy “ethics truce” whereby Democratic and Republican House Members rarely file complaints against Members of the other party. We’re only half-glad because his complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) smacks of a blunderbuss-like assault rather than a serious rifle-shot at wrongdoing.

Bell, who lost his seat partly because of a gerrymander of Texas House seats engineered by DeLay, has scooped up a series of charges against the Majority Leader and a variety of GOP affiliates and dumped them into the lap of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. House Democratic leaders seem to be ducking responsibility for his action, as if they, too, are half-glad and half-fearful of his decision to take on DeLay.

The House truce has been in effect since 1997, following years of use, or abuse, of the ethics process to wage political warfare. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who came to power filing ethics complaints against Democratic leaders, was brought down amid a flurry of ethics charges filed against him by Democrats. Since then, the ethics committee has conducted investigations only when a Member has been convicted of a crime, although — as we’ve noted before — we’re gratified that it is investigating the egregious case of apparent attempted bribery and extortion to secure the vote of Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) on the Medicare prescription drug bill last year.

Bell’s complaint covers one case that definitely cries out for investigation: allegations that Westar Energy Co. paid $56,000 to Members and to DeLay’s leadership political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, to secure a “seat at the table” as a House-Senate conference reconciled energy legislation. Evidence in the case consists of e-mails among Westar executives unearthed in a federal investigation. DeLay and Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.) have all denied that the contributions had any effect on their support for Westar’s position.

Bell also is calling for an ethics investigation into charges — currently being pursued by an aggressive (some say hyper-aggressive) Texas county prosecutor, Ronnie Earle — that DeLay used TRMPAC to “launder” corporate contributions to state legislative candidates in 2002. The House ethics committee, it seems to us, will be hard-pressed to uncover evidence in this case.

It could, however, delve into Bell’s third charge, that DeLay improperly influenced the Federal Aviation Administration and the Homeland Security Department to track a plane carrying Texas Democratic legislators during the state’s 2003 redistricting fight. Appropriation of federal resources in a political dispute surely would be a violation of ethics rules and the law.

Bell informed Democratic leaders of his plans to file a complaint, but they are not endorsing his action. They seem to welcome the trouble it might pose for DeLay but fear the consequences of GOP retaliation. Westar and the FAA cases deserve probing, but — especially this late in a Congressional session — we doubt they’ll get the attention they deserve.