The House ethics committee admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) last night for offering a political favor to a Michigan lawmaker in exchange for the member's vote on last year's hard-fought Medicare prescription drug bill.
After a six-month investigation, the committee concluded that DeLay had told Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) he would endorse the congressional bid of Smith's son if the congressman gave GOP leaders a much-needed vote in a contentious pre-dawn roll call on Nov. 22.
"This conduct could support a finding that . . . DeLay violated House rules," the committee said in its 62-page report. ". . . It is improper for a member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal."
The committee said the report "will serve as a public admonishment" of DeLay, Smith and one other GOP lawmaker involved in the negotiations that occurred on the House floor as Republican leaders scrambled for support on a much-debated bill to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare. They eventually extended the roll call for nearly three hours to avoid an embarrassing loss.
The ethics panel, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, said it would take no further action in the case.
It's rare for a high-ranking congressional leader to draw the admonition of the ethics committee. In January 1997, the ethics committee voted 7 to 1 to recommend that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) be reprimanded and pay a $300,000 penalty for disregarding House rules in misusing tax-exempt funds to promote his conservative political agenda.
DeLay has been the subject of several ethics complaints over the years. In May 1999, the House ethics committee privately chastised DeLay for threatening a Washington trade association with retaliation for hiring a prominent Democrat as its president.
Last month, a Texas grand jury indicted three of DeLay's political associates in a case involving a political committee affiliated with the majority leader. The House ethics committee is weighing a complaint against DeLay, unrelated to the Smith matter, which involves the Texas group and two other matters.
In a statement last night, DeLay said he accepted the ethics committee's "guidance," adding: "During my entire career I have worked to advance my party's legislative agenda. However, to this end, I would never knowingly violate the rules of the House."
Smith, who is retiring this year, touched off the ethics case soon after DeLay helped round up enough votes to pass the Medicare bill. He wrote a newspaper article in Michigan saying unnamed House leaders had promised substantial financial and political support for his son Brad -- who was running to succeed him -- if Smith would vote aye. Smith, who voted against the bill, also wrote that members had threatened to work against his son's campaign if he voted no. Brad Smith lost the Aug. 3 GOP primary.
Last night's report concluded that no one offered money to Brad Smith's campaign in exchange for the father's vote. It admonished Nick Smith for making allegations that appeared to stem from "speculation or exaggeration." It said Smith "failed to exercise reasonable judgment and restraint," and made statements that "risked impugning the reputation of the House."
The report also admonished Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.) for making comments about Brad Smith during the Nov. 22 roll call that appeared to be "a threat of retaliation" for Nick Smith's vote against the bill.
According to the report, Nick Smith told ethics committee investigators that DeLay approached him on the House floor during a series of votes leading to the final showdown on the Medicare bill. Smith told the panel that DeLay "told him that he would personally endorse Representative Smith's son in the Republican primary" if Smith "voted in favor of the Medicare legislation." According to Smith's version, DeLay added, "that's my last offer," and the congressman "teared up" at the majority leader's offer. The exchange lasted "about eight seconds," Smith said.
The report said DeLay testified to the committee "that he did say words to the effect of: 'I will personally endorse your son. That's my final offer.' " DeLay recalled that the exchange took place before the three-hour roll call on the bill's final passage, the report said.
DeLay told the investigators that Smith "first raised the subject of his son's campaign," and DeLay believed Smith was "fishing to see what I would say."
DeLay had brushed aside a similar overture from Smith several weeks earlier, but this time offered to endorse the son in exchange for Smith's vote, the report said. DeLay told investigators that if Smith had voted for the Medicare bill, then the majority leader "would have made good on his promise and endorsed Brad Smith."