Common Cause, CREW, Call for Outside Counsel to Investigate Allegations Against House Majority Leader DeLay

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Common Cause call for the appointment of an outside counsel to investigate allegations under consideration by the House Ethics Committee against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).

Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX)

The Ethics Committee is currently in the midst of a 45-day period during which it is considering whether a complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-TX) against Rep. DeLay, alleging improper fundraising and abuse of power merits further investigation.

“Given the rancor and partisanship rampant in the House of Representatives, the Ethics Committee faces an uphill battle in attempting to impartially judge even whether the allegations against Mr. DeLay merit further scrutiny,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. “Any decision made by members of the committee will be criticized as political. A decision made by an outside counsel will be seen as fair.”

“The only way to ensure public confidence in the committee’s decision is to appoint an outside counsel with prosecutorial experience and a reputation for integrity,” said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause. “That person should have the skills to evaluate the allegations in Rep. Bell’s complaint, and make an impartial judgment as to what steps to take without suffering the otherwise inevitable attacks from either party.”

There is precedent for the Ethics Committee to appoint an outside counsel in cases involving congressional leaders, whose stature makes judgment by their peers especially difficult: outside counsels were appointed to investigate ethics complaints filed against former House Speakers Jim Wright (D-TX) and Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

And we are not the only ones who think an outside counsel is appropriate. Rep. DeLay’s home state newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, called this week for an outside counsel to investigate, noting that Rep. DeLay’s political action committee has made contributions to four of the five Republicans on the House Ethics Committee.

“The sums aren’t huge – no more than $15,000 to any one person,” the paper said. “But the payments illustrate how difficult it is for members of Congress – a body that exists on back-scratching and favor-swapping, sometimes in the form of hard, cold cash – to police themselves.”

What’s more, major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman have written news stories or editorials about the fundraising activities of both Rep. DeLay and one of his political action committees, Texans for a Republican Majority. A local district attorney in Texas is investigating that committee’s fundraising activities for possible violations of state law in connection with the recent redistricting of Texas’s congressional districts. Rep. DeLay himself has not been named as a target of that investigation.

These factors, combined with the increasingly partisan nature of Congress and the secretive nature of the House Ethics Committee, explain why the American public – and Rep. DeLay – deserve to have these charges fully investigated by an outside counsel. An outside counsel would remove the layers of partisanship and bitterness that threaten to further cloud this investigation and tarnish any decision the committee may reach.

Today’s news conference came with an unexpected twist when DeLay spokesmen Jonathan Grella and Stuart Roy attempted to cloud the issue by distributing erroneous information to reporters – including the claim that Common Cause press secretary Mary Boyle was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate from Ohio in 1998. In fact, Mary Boyle is a former reporter for The Associated Press.

Grella’s and Roy’s claims have no effect on our position. Common Cause is solely interested in calling for the House Ethics Committee to appoint a neutral third party to serve as outside counsel in investigating the validity of the charges contained in Rep. Bell’s complaint against Rep. DeLay. Given the financial ties Rep. DeLay has to the Republican members of the Ethics Committee, the potential that Rep. DeLay could retaliate against members of the Ethics Committee, and the secretive nature in which the House Ethics Committee has increasingly cloaked itself since 1997, the American public deserves a decision of the validity of these charges that is above question from any partisan corner.