House Republican leaders tightened their control over the ethics committee yesterday by ousting its independent-minded chairman, appointing a replacement who is close to them and adding two new members who donated to the legal defense fund of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Republican officials have spent months taking steps to ensure DeLay's political survival in case he is indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating political fundraising, and House leadership aides said they needed to have the ethics committee controlled by lawmakers they can trust.
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Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who clashed with DeLay so often that they barely spoke and was considered wayward by other leaders, was replaced yesterday with Rep. Richard Hastings (R-Wash.). Hastings has carried out other sensitive leadership assignments and is known as a favorite of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who made the decision.
Hefley said in an interview yesterday that he believes he was removed because he was too independent. He said there is "a bad perception out there that there was a purge in the committee and that people were put in that would protect our side of the aisle better than I did."
"Nobody should be there to protect anybody," he said. "They should be there to protect the integrity of the institution."
The replacement of Hefley is the latest in a series of actions by GOP leaders to crack down on a rebellious ethics committee that posed a threat to DeLay and other Republicans.
DeLay and other Republicans were angered in October when the ethics committee admonished DeLay for asking federal aviation officials to track an airplane involved in a Texas redistricting controversy, and for conduct that suggested political donations might influence legislative action.
It was the third time that the panel had admonished the powerful majority leader. And many Republicans were miffed because the complaint that led to the committee's findings was filed by then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.), a freshman who lost his primary last year under the redistricting plan that DeLay had promoted.
Hastert had signaled for months that he would refuse to waive a rule that limited Hefley's term as chairman. The leadership not only stripped Hefley of his chairmanship yesterday but also removed him from the committee.
Hastings, 63, was the second-ranking Republican on the committee, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Colleagues described him as unassuming and deliberative, and not excited about taking on the job. He ran his family's paper supply business before being elected to the House in 1994, the year Republicans regained control of Congress.
Hastings was in the speaker's chair in 2003 when the vote on the bill to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare was kept open for nearly three hours while GOP leaders rounded up enough votes.
He also was chairman of an ethics subcommittee that looked into wrongdoing by former representative James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), who was expelled from the House in 2002. Traficant was later sentenced to prison for accepting bribes and evading taxes.
Republican leaders put on the committee two new members who have donated to a DeLay legal fund: Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex..) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Smith gave DeLay $10,000, making him among the seven largest donors among congressional members, and Cole gave $5,000, according to an analysis of disclosure records by the watchdog group Public Citizen.
DeLay's defense fund continues to operate, aides said. Public Citizen found that the DeLay Legal Expense Trust had collected $1 million from its inception in 2000 through the end of last year. Of that, $352,000 was from members of Congress and their political action committees, and $646,721 consisted of corporate money and donations from individuals and ideological organizations. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a coalition of eight government watchdog groups, said the donations suggest the lawmakers are there to serve as "Mr. DeLay's defenders."
Democrats and public interest groups said that changes made to the composition of the committee made it unlikely that DeLay's power would be threatened by committee action, no matter how many questions are raised about his activities.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the removal of Hefley sent "a chilling message to members who value upholding the highest ethical standard over partisan loyalty."
Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said Hastert had "seriously damaged the integrity of the House as an institution and his own credibility as the leader of the House."
Hefley said he "would not have changed the committee members, because I've sat there and watched them work with great integrity."