Correction to This Article
The headline on this analysis that appeared in The Post overstated the opinions expressed by legal experts. The experts said that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is in danger of being declared in violation of House rules, but they did not characterize such a finding as "likely."

Experts See Problems for DeLay

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005

Now that it's clear that his controversial private-paid trips abroad will be put under a microscope in Congress, Tom DeLay is in serious danger of being declared in violation of House ethics rules, legal experts say.

Lawyers who specialize in ethics cases believe that the Republican House majority leader from Texas might be in technical breach of at least a few congressional regulations. According to published reports, a registered foreign agent paid for one of DeLay's overseas trips and a registered lobbyist used his credit card to pay for another foreign airfare -- actions the rules prohibit. DeLay may also have accepted gifts that exceeded congressional limits, taken an expense-paid trip overseas for longer than the rules allow and not disclosed all of the benefits he received.

"It appears from news reports that there were aspects of his trips that did not comply with the ethics rules," said Jan W. Baran, a lawyer and ethics expert.

These experts say the best chance for DeLay to be vindicated -- or to get little more than a slap on the wrist in an ethics inquiry -- is if he's able to convince a congressional committee that he was unaware of what the lobbyists did.

"The rules are written in a way that indicate that if a member of Congress is misled about who's paying for things, that is a credible defense," said Kenneth A. Gross, a lawyer who deals with congressional ethics. The House will have to wrestle with whether DeLay, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, knew or should have known that he might be violating House rules.

History shows, however, that once an ethics investigation is started against congressional leaders such as DeLay, they usually don't get away unscathed. The ethics committee already admonished DeLay three times last year for a variety of lapses. The panel can also look into other issues that come up during its investigation.

Leaders "generally get nicked a little bit," said Baran, who represents Republicans.

This time DeLay could be admonished, censured or, at worst, expelled by a House vote -- if the chamber takes any action at all. Initially, DeLay's fate will be in the hands of the soon-to-be-empaneled 10-member ethics committee, which is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. The panel has been in limbo for the past four months because of a partisan feud over rules changes Republicans imposed in January. Yesterday, House Republicans agreed to rescind those rules changes to try to end the stalemate.

The allegations against DeLay that have been published in recent weeks are a blur of charge and countercharge. Two things are clear. First, the most serious allegations generally involve overseas trips that were organized by nongovernment groups. Second, unless a link is established between the journeys and his official actions, it doesn't appear that DeLay will face any civil or criminal worries. For now, the issues involve House ethics rules, which are overseen by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the ethics committee.

The panel hasn't formally agreed to address the DeLay accusations. If it does, a subcommittee of four lawmakers would conduct a confidential inquiry, which could take six months to a year. It would collect documents and take testimony about DeLay's trips.

"The process can be a penalty in itself," Gross warned. "It is inherently partisan and political."

The trip that was most rife with potential problems for DeLay occurred in late May and early June of 2000. According to a report Sunday in The Washington Post, DeLay's airfare was charged to an American Express credit card issued to Jack Abramoff, a registered Washington lobbyist who is under investigation by federal authorities and a Senate committee in connection with tens of millions of dollars he collected for public affairs work for Indian tribes. Lobbyists are barred from paying for lawmakers' travel, even if the expenses are reimbursed by an authorized source, as Abramoff's spokesman says they were in this case, experts said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company