DeLay Spotlights Rebuke of Bell

GOP Fires Back After Week of Flak on Ethics

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:49pm

After several days of bad press, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and GOP lawmakers mounted a political counteroffensive, charging that the Democrats — specifically outgoing Rep. Chris Bell (Texas) — have abused the ethics process in a failed bid to regain control of the House.

DeLay and his allies cited an ethics committee letter rebuking Bell as vindication, despite public criticism over the decision to change House GOP Conference rules to protect DeLay from having to relinquish his post if he’s indicted in an ongoing Texas probe.

They also slammed Democrats for engaging in “the politics of personal destruction” — a phrase made famous by former President Bill Clinton during the 1990s.

“The [ethics] committee found — as we have always held — that Mr. Bell’s complaint included inflammatory language, exaggerated charges and serious misstatements of both fact and law,” DeLay said at a Friday press conference.

Bell, he said, “acted out of anger in losing his seat in Congress, blamed everyone but himself for his loss and turned his obsessive anger on me. In other words, Mr. Bell has been exposed for the partisan stalker that he is.”

DeLay added: “I understand the Democrat party’s adjustment to minority status is frustrating, but their crushing defeat in the elections earlier this month — after two more years of Democrat obstruction and vicious personal attacks — should show them that the American people are tired of their politics of personal destruction.”

The Texas Republican also lashed out at Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), telling reporters that the two Democrats “are the only Members who I know have been found guilty of violating federal law.”

Pelosi’s PAC was fined $21,000 in February for improperly accepting campaign donations in violation of federal limits, while McDermott may have to pay more than $600,000 in fines and legal bills for violating federal wiretapping laws.

Several Republicans, including Texas Reps. Henry Bonilla and John Carter, suggested that Bell should have to reimburse the House for the cost of an investigation into an ethics complaint filed by Bell against DeLay.

Bonilla, who pushed for the change in GOP Conference rules to protect DeLay, called the Texas Republican “one of the greatest leaders this nation has ever seen.”

Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) called Bell’s ethics filing a “political hit” on the Majority Leader.

DeLay, who was twice admonished by the ethics committee in October, also continued to insist that he was in fact cleared by the ethics panel. He again said that the committee does not have the authority to admonish Members under House rules.

“Admonishment is not a sanction under the House rules,” said DeLay. The ethics committee, in their statements of admonishment on DeLay in the Bell complaint and the investigation of Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), insisted it does have the authority to take such an action.

The continuing uproar over DeLay’s ethical troubles threatened to overshadow the final days of the 108th Congress.

DeLay blamed the media, especially The Washington Post and The New York Times, for hypocrisy in how they treat Republicans, saying reports on ethics allegations against him and other conservative lawmakers have made front-page headlines while ethics allegations against Democrats get buried inside.

“I think there is a double standard in the media,” DeLay said.

Democrats immediately fired back, calling DeLay the “most admonished Member of Congress in modern history” and blasting the GOP Conference’s action to protect the Majority Leader.

Pelosi released a statement slamming DeLay for his “outburst” on the steps of the Cannon House Office Building on Friday.

“Tom DeLay proved this morning that he is not only unethical but delusional,” said the California Democrat. “No amount of mudslinging can hide the fact that Mr. DeLay has repeatedly abused his power. … Mr. DeLay’s display today and his repeated ethical lapses have brought dishonor on the House of Representatives.”

In his own press conference Friday afternoon, Bell accused DeLay of being unwilling to recognize that he — not those who criticize his controversial activities — is the true cause of his own ethical problems.

“After being admonished a record number of times by the [ethics] committee this year for unethical conduct, Mr. DeLay has sought to place blame for his misfortune everywhere except where it belongs — at his own feet,” Bell said. “It is clearly time for Tom DeLay to take his medicine. It is time for Tom DeLay to take responsibility for his actions.”

But Bell himself was the target of rare public criticism by the ethics committee for statements included in his complaint against DeLay — allegations that the ethics committee did not feel were warranted in light of the evidence he presented to the panel.

Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), told Bell in a letter that he had violated Rule 15(a)(4), which states that ethics filings “shall not contain innuendo, speculative assertions, or conclusory statements.”

“Indeed, it appears there is no purpose for including excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in a complaint except in an attempt to attract publicity and, hence, a political advantage,” Hefley and Mollohan wrote to Bell. “This improper political purpose was highlighted in the various efforts you undertook to promote your complaint publicly, by including such excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in press releases or other public statements. The fact that the Committee ultimately determined to issue a letter of admonition to Representative DeLay on bases other than the materials specified below does not mitigate your violation.”

Despite its findings, the committee will take no action against Bell, who lost a Democratic primary earlier this year.

Hefley and Mollohan cited numerous instances in which they believed Bell’s charges were unsupported by facts, including allegation of bribery made indirectly by Bell in his filing against DeLay regarding his dealings with Westar Energy Inc.

Westar gave $25,000 to a Texas PAC founded by DeLay in May 2002 while it was seeking insertion of favorable language in a then-pending energy bill. DeLay took no action on behalf of Westar, despite meeting with Westar representatives on several occasions after the donation was received. Several top Westar officials were later indicted on dozens of federal charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud and falsification of records. Bell alleged that DeLay had improperly solicited the Westar donation to TRMPAC.

“There hardly can be a more serious charge against a public official than he or she solicited a bribe, i.e., something of value that is given or received specifically in exchange for an official act,” Hefley and Mollohan wrote. “Yet as the Committee noted in its analysis [of Bell’s complaint], the facts relating to Westar that were alleged in the complaint did not come even close to supporting this extremely serious claim.”

The two lawmakers also listed another half-dozen instances in which Bell’s complaint failed to support its charges against DeLay.

Eric Burns, Bell’s spokesman, was also singled out personally for a statement he gave to Roll Call suggesting that the Republican members of the ethics committee were unwilling to allow a full-scale investigation of DeLay in response to Bell’s complaint.

Bell said in a statement that he would “gladly accept” Hefley and Mollohan’s “guidance,” and noted that ethics committee has never issued any previous rulings on its prohibition against speculation and innuendo in a complaint, adding that the rule needed clarification.

Hefley and Mollohan also went to great lengths to knock down suggestions that they were trying to discourage other Members from filing their own ethics complaints.

The Hefley-Mollohan letter rebuking Bell came as no surprise to those who had followed the ethics process closely, and two lawmakers had signaled weeks ago that such an action against Bell was likely during the lame-duck session.

A number of Republicans on the ethics committee were privately furious with Bell over the sweeping charges in his complaint, and while they reluctantly agreed with the decision to admonish DeLay, they also wanted Bell to be rebuked as well.