Delay on Rep. DeLay complaint shows need for ethics reform

Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington call for speedy resolution with outside counsel

The House Ethics Committee’s maneuver to apparently avoid addressing how to handle a complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) smacks of all that is wrong about the House ethics rules and points to the dire need for reform, including an independent counsel in cases involving congressional leaders.

“We don’t know why the Ethics Committee made this decision because it works in secret,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “All we see is that the committee is using legal gymnastics once again to avoid deciding whether to investigate Mr. DeLay. This is a clear example of the need for more transparency and accountability in our congressional ethics system.”

“The failure of the committee to initiate an investigation into Rep. Chris Bell’s complaint against Majority Leader DeLay, after sitting on it for 90 days, demonstrates the breathtaking inadequacy of the ethics process,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “The fact that the committee has manipulated its own rules to avoid deciding whether or not to investigate the Majority Leader for charges as serious as bribery, extortion and abuse of power is a testament to Mr. DeLay’s power over the committee. It appears that the ethics committee exists to cover-up, not uncover, unethical conduct of House members.”

According to a story Wednesday in Roll Call, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Ethics Committee are apparently unable to agree on whether the DeLay complaint merits further investigation. They are reportedly asking the full Ethics Committee to decide the matter. That sets up the likelihood of a deadlock within the panel, and could lead to the complaint being dropped. Monday, Sept. 20 is the panel’s deadline for deciding the matter. This would mark the second time that the Ethics Committee has postponed a deadline to make a decision on the case since the complaint was filed in June.

Common Cause and CREW in July called for an outside counsel to investigate the improper fundraising and abuse of power allegations against Mr. DeLay made by Mr. Bell (D-TX). Given Mr. DeLay’s powerful stature in the House, it is virtually impossible for members to sit in judgment of him. That is especially true considering that Mr. DeLay has given money to four of the Republicans on the House Ethics Committees. Since 1997, Mr. DeLay has given $28,504 to Reps. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, Steven LaTourette of Ohio, Judy Biggert of Illinois and Doc Hastings of Washington.

The precedent for resolving complaints against the congressional leadership is to appoint an outside counsel. This was done in the cases of both former House speakers Jim Wright (D-TX) and Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

“The Ethics Committee needs to move fast to resolve this before the election and not stonewall,” Pingree said. “When Mr. DeLay’s constituents pass judgment on him at the polls, they need to know the determination of the Ethics Committee regarding these charges. In fact, the whole country deserves to know since Mr. DeLay is the majority leader of the House, and his actions affect the whole Congress.”