The House ethics committee last night admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for asking federal aviation officials to track an airplane involved in a Texas political spat, and for conduct that suggested political donations might influence legislative action.
The two-pronged rebuke marked the second time in six days -- and the third time overall -- that the ethics panel has admonished the House's second-ranking Republican. The back-to-back chastisements are highly unusual for any lawmaker, let alone one who aspires to be speaker, and some watchdog groups called on him to resign his leadership post.
The ethics committee, five Republicans and five Democrats who voted unanimously on the findings, concluded its seven-page letter to DeLay by saying: "In view of the number of instances to date in which the committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you have engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions to assure that you are in full compliance at all times with the applicable House rules and standards of conduct."
DeLay said in a statement that he believed the complaint "should have been thrown out immediately," but, "I accept the committee's guidance. . . . For years Democrats have hurled relentless personal attacks at me, hoping to tie my hands and smear my name. All have fallen short, not because of insufficient venom, but because of insufficient merit."
DeLay's lawyer, former representative Edwin R. "Ed" Bethune (R-Ark.), told reporters that the committee's findings stopped far short of some of the most serious allegations, such as bribery, contained in the complaint filed in June by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.). Bell's complaint triggered the ethics committee investigations of DeLay.
DeLay, 57, a 10-term veteran, helped orchestrate the 1994 GOP takeover of the House and became renowned for his bare-knuckled tactics as majority whip and an unrivaled fundraiser. Democrats long have reviled the former exterminator from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, but now they are finding fodder in the bipartisan ethics committee.
While DeLay continues to enjoy broad support within his party, some independent analysts warned recently that another ethics rebuke could seriously impair his ability to continue to lead the Republicans or to advance his career.
The ethics panel faulted DeLay's actions in asking the Federal Aviation Administration last year to help locate a private plane that Republicans thought was carrying Texas Democratic legislators. Some Democratic lawmakers were leaving the state to prevent a quorum that Republicans needed in Austin to pass a bitterly disputed congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay. DeLay's staff asked an FAA official to help find the plane in a bid to force the legislators back to the capital.
The ethics report cited House rules that bar members from taking "any official action on the basis of the partisan affiliation . . . of the individuals involved." It noted that the FAA official later said he felt he "had been used" for political purposes. DeLay's role in the matter "raises serious concerns under these standards of conduct," the report said.
The redistricting plan, ultimately enacted, now threatens the reelections of five Democratic U.S. House members from Texas. Their losses would boost the GOP's congressional advantage and DeLay's power. Bell lost his reelection bid earlier this year in the Democratic primary, a result of the redistricting plans' movement of borders and voter blocs. DeLay's allies have accused him of seeking revenge, a charge that Bell, a Houston lawyer, denies.
The committee also admonished DeLay for his dealings with top officers of Kansas-based Westar Energy Inc. Some of the officers wrote memos in 2002 citing their belief that $56,500 in campaign contributions to political committees associated with DeLay and other Republicans would get them "a seat at the table" where key legislation was being drafted.
The ethics report said lawmakers may not solicit political donations "that may create even an appearance" that they will lead to "special treatment or special access to the member." DeLay's participation in Westar's "golf fundraiser at The Homestead resort on June 2-3, 2002, is objectionable in that those actions, at a minimum, created such an improper appearance," the report said. The golf tournament, which raised money for DeLay's political committees, "took place just as the House-Senate conference on major energy legislation . . . was about to get underway. . . . That legislation was of critical importance to the attendees."
The report said DeLay was "in a position to significantly influence the conference."
The ethics panel, formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, deferred action on a third component of Bell's complaint. It dealt with the fundraising group Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, or TRMPAC, to which DeLay is closely linked. A Texas grand jury last month indicted three of DeLay's political associates on charges of using TRMPAC to illegally collect corporate donations and funnel them to Texas legislative races.
The ethics committee said it will take no action on the matter "pending further action" concerning the indictments or the Texas-based investigation that prompted them.
Just as it did six days ago, the ethics committee released its report shortly before 9 p.m. Last night, word of the report seeped out as House members lingered near the Capitol for late votes. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters that DeLay "is a good man and a strong leader, and these politically motivated attacks will not deter him. . . . Shame on Chris Bell."
Bell said that the ethics committee "agrees that Mr. DeLay acted inappropriately and unethically in the course of conducting his duties," and called for DeLay to step down as majority leader. House Democratic leaders had no comment.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement that the committee has admonished DeLay for three separate incidents in six days -- in addition to the admonishment issued against him a few years ago. She said that "clearly shows that he believes himself to be above the law."
"If the Republican Conference wants the American people to believe that it takes ethics seriously," she continued, "it must insist that Mr. DeLay resign his post as majority leader."