Ethics Panel May Face Busy Lame-Duck Session

Posted October 8, 2004 at 5:44pm

Lost in the public uproar over the pronouncements by the House ethics committee on Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is the fact that the panel still has several cases to dispose of when it returns for a lame-duck session next month.

The most high-profile matter for Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the ethics panel, respectively, to deal with is whether to take action against Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who filed the ethics complaint that led to last week’s admonishment of DeLay.

But the committee is also still conducting informal investigations into Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), and panel members expect those cases to be completed in November.

Bell filed his complaint against DeLay in June, charging that DeLay illegally solicited corporate campaign contributions from Westar Energy, misused a Texas political action committee to funnel corporate contributions to Texas state candidates in violation of state law and abused the power of his office by involving federal agencies in a Lone Star State redistricting battle.

After nearly four months of review, the ethics committee on Wednesday admonished DeLay over his contacts with Westar, as well as using Federal Aviation Administration officials to locate wayward Texas Democrats during the state’s 2003 redistricting battle.

A third allegation by Bell, that DeLay had misused his Texans for a Republican Majority PAC to improperly funnel corporate contributions, was deferred due to an ongoing investigation of the matter by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.

But in a Hefley-Mollohan report on the DeLay case, the two lawmakers also made clear that they want to review the way Bell handled his complaint, as well as public statements the Texas Democrat and his staff made in support of the complaint.

“Representative DeLay’s other major objection — which is that the [Bell] complaint includes innuendo, speculative assertions and conclusory statements in violation of Committee Rule 15(a)(4) — is a matter that should be taken up separately by the Committee, and we intend to bring it up before the Committee in the near future,” wrote Hefley and Mollohan. Rule 15(a)(4) states that an ethics complaint “shall not contain innuendo, speculative assertions, or conclusory statements.”

The Hefley-Mollohan report also was openly critical of Bell’s assertion that DeLay violated federal bribery and illegal gratuity statutes, in addition to House rules, in his dealings with Westar. “Review of the material presented in the complaint on this matter reveals a significant gap between the violations alleged against Representative DeLay, on the one hand, and the information offered in support of these allegations, on the other,” wrote Hefley and Mollohan.

GOP insiders said Bell and his staff may be hauled before the panel to justify their accusations, notwithstanding the fact that Bell will leave the House in January after losing his primary.

In addition, Former Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), who represented DeLay in the ethics case, has written to House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) seeking a contempt of Congress against Bell and the public watchdog group that assisted him in drafting his complaint, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Bethune charged that Bell and CREW had violated House rules and libeled DeLay, and wants Dreier to hold contempt hearings on the matter.

Bell’s office and CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, dismissed the Bethune letter as a publicity stunt.

“I don’t think there is any evidence anywhere clearing DeLay of this stuff,” said Bell spokesman Eric Burns, who pointed out that libel requires knowingly make false statements about another person with intent to defame that individual. “It just doesn’t meet the definition of libel.”

With the ongoing battle over the DeLay ethics case likely to extend into next month, it will add to the ethics panel workload as it completes its assessment of the allegations against Weldon and Conyers.

The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year Karen Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican’s daughter, used her father’s contacts to help obtain contracts worth nearly $1 million per year for her lobbying to represent several foreign clients, especially Russian ones, in the United States. Curt Weldon, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, is an expert on Russian affairs. The ethics committee began an informal investigation of Weldon after the story ran.

Weldon has denied the charges and hired ethics lawyer William Canfield of Williams & Jensen to represent him before the panel. Weldon said he went to the ethics committee himself after the Times story was published in order to clear his name.

As for Conyers, the ethics committee has been looking into whether the veteran Democratic lawmaker and his aides improperly conducted political activities out of his Detroit office in 2002 and 2003.

Over a two-year period, Conyers’ aides reportedly worked on Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s (D) 2002 gubernatorial campaign, a number of city and county races, a California ballot proposal to ban the collection of racial data, and the unsuccessful campaign of Conyers’ wife, Monica, for a state Senate seat, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The ethics committee is looking into whether McCarthy used campaign funds and her Congressional staff for personal benefit. McCarthy is retiring at the end of this Congress.

All three probes were initiated by the ethics committee on its own authority on an informal basis following news reports, and no investigative subcommittee have been created to conduct full-scale investigations.