Pelosi Monitors DeLay Probe

Leader’s Focus on ‘Process’

Posted September 24, 2004 at 5:31pm

The top Democrat on the House ethics committee has quietly met with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to discuss the highly sensitive case of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), as well as other matters before the panel.

While Pelosi has portrayed herself repeatedly as having no role in the DeLay case, or anything else before the ethics committee, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) acknowledged in an interview last week that he has met with the Minority Leader recently on the DeLay matter, now at a critical juncture. The ethics committee may vote as early as this week on whether to open a full investigation into the Texas Republican’s activities.

Mollohan said that there was nothing untoward about his talks with Pelosi and that the subject matter was strictly limited to timing and other procedural issues. Both Mollohan and Pelosi’s office denied that she was applying any pressure on the West Virginia Democrats to move forward with the case against DeLay.

“Any time the Minority Leader would merit it or needed a briefing about the status of any ethics case, I would give it to her,” said Mollohan, who added that Pelosi had herself requested updates on several occasions. “If she wants to know, she should know it.”

Mollohan also blamed the news media for getting information wrong on ethics cases, and said Pelosi needed better information than what was publicly available. “The status [of ethics cases] as it appears in the press, the substance as it appears in the press, is 90 percent of the time in error, or 90 percent of the stories are in error,” Mollohan said.

Mollohan insisted that Pelosi had never pressured or directed him to take a position in any case, either in the present DeLay debate or other matters before the secretive panel.

“Never, ever has [Pelosi] tried to even discuss the substance of a case or push in a certain direction,” Mollohan said.

Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s communications director, said the discussions between Pelosi and his boss involved “questions of process and timing, never substance.” Daly said Pelosi was not tampering or interfering with the ethics committee.

But Republicans, and even a few Democrats, questioned the propriety of Pelosi’s private meetings with Mollohan. To some Republicans, the entire DeLay case is about “process and timing” and they were surprised Mollohan would be talking to Pelosi about any issue under review by the ethics committee.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has no similar contact with Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), according to Ted Van Der Meid, Hastert’s counsel.

“We have never had contact with Hefley about cases or timing and he’s never had contact with us,” said Van Der Meid. “I think that’s been the attitude of the Speaker — once they’re appointed, they’re appointed.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Hefley’s predecessor as ethics chairman, said Mollohan’s contacts with Pelosi are “highly unusual.”

“It does raise suspicions that need to be dispelled when that occurs so close to an election,” said Smith. “I would hope that [Mollohan] would reassure us that there was a good reason for the discussion.”

Smith also pointed out that ethics committee rules forbid any members of the panel from discussing what is going on within the panel with anyone not serving on the committee, including party leaders.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a former ranking member on the ethics panel, while not directly addressing Pelosi and Mollohan, said he strongly discouraged such dealings with his leadership while the panel was still deliberating. Once the committee had reached a decision, said Berman, than leaders on both sides of the aisle would be informed of its disposition, including whether the panel needed floor time to make its findings public.

“I frown very much on such discussions,” said Berman. “But there were times when we were going to do something and I would sometimes inform the leadership after telling my Republican counterpart.” Berman served as ranking Democrat on the panel during Smith, Hansen and part of Hefley’s chairmanships.

Pelosi, who served for seven years on the ethics committee, has stated numerous times that she has nothing to do with the decisions made by the ethics panel, and knows little or nothing of what is happening inside the committee.

“As you know, I have a hands-off approach to all of this,” Pelosi told reporters on Sept. 15.

“As you know, and I have said over and over again, I keep at arm’s length from the ethics process,” Pelosi said June 24.

“As I told you before, as a longtime member of the ethics committee, I thought matters of the ethics committee were within the ethics committee,” the California Democrat declared on March 18.

Both Hefley and Mollohan are under enormous pressure as they decide how to handle the allegations against DeLay outlined in a complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas). Bell charged that DeLay illegally solicited corporate contributions, misused his Texas PAC to launder contributions and then sent them to candidates for state office, and abused the powers of his office to intervene in a Texas redistricting fight. DeLay vehemently denies the charges.

Hefley, Mollohan and ethics committee staff have reviewed the case for more than three months and still have not made a recommendation to the full committee about what they think should occur next, be it dismissal, appointment of an investigative subcommittee or another option. The two lawmakers deny that they are deadlocked or that the committee might stalemate during a vote on the matter, although GOP and Democratic insiders continue to speculate about why the process is taking so long. The committee may meet this week to address the issue, though no meeting was scheduled at press time.

Adding to the confusion surrounding the DeLay ethics case are indictments handed down last week by a Texas grand jury against three DeLay political aides and eight corporations for money laundering and illegal campaign donations to a Lone Star State PAC founded by the Majority Leader. While DeLay was not named in the indictments, Democrats claim the allegations buttress Bell’s ethics complaint.

In a related matter, Hefley and Mollohan released an unusually pointed statement on Thursday defending the integrity of members of their committee who have received campaign contributions from DeLay. The Texas Republican and his leadership PAC have given tens of thousands of dollars to Republicans who now serve on the ethics panel or could potentially be appointed to an investigative subcommittee. That fact led public watchdog groups to call for an outside counsel in the DeLay case, a suggestion rejected by committee.

“In recent months, a number of organizations and individuals have questioned whether members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are able to give fair consideration to a complaint against a Member from who they have received political contributions,” said Hefley and Mollohan in their statement. “If either of us believed that any committee member were unable to discharge his or her duties properly, we would seek to have that member removed from the Committee.”