Parties at odds over DeLay probe

Democrats call GOP offer `charade' meant to divert from ethics-rules changes

April 21, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Republican chairman of the House ethics committee pledged yesterday to open an investigation of Republican Leader Tom DeLay - if Democrats agree to end a stalemate over rules changes they say circumvent the policing of lawmakers.

Democrats immediately rejected the offer, portraying the move as a tactic aimed at easing the pressure on DeLay, who is under fire over questions about his travel, fund raising and relationships with lobbyists.

Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, chairman of the ethics panel - the only committee in the House split evenly between Republicans and Democrats - called the offer of an investigation "an unusual and extraordinary step."

"This should remove any doubt about the true intent of the rules changes," said Hastings, who was appointed to his post this year.

But Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, top Democrat on the ethics panel, said he could not accept the deal Hastings offered because it doesn't solve the larger problem. Mollohan and fellow Democratic committee members have refused to let the committee do business because they object, among other things, to Republican-imposed rule changes that require a majority vote to open an investigation and impose a limit on the time an investigation can last.

"If we're going to have an ethics committee, we have to do it right," said Mollohan, of West Virginia. "And the first principle in doing it right is that it be ... bipartisan in its constitution, bipartisan in its rules and bipartisan in the processes that we engage in to change rules."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, was more scathing, calling it a "charade" meant to divert attention from damage done to the ethics rules.

"While the American people are surely interested to see that Tom DeLay's fellow Republicans agree that his behavior demands investigation, this offer does not address the fact that Republicans are in a position to block other investigations on a party-line vote," said Hoyer. "This issue is bigger than the Majority Leader, it is about the integrity of the entire House now and in the future."

DeLay was admonished by the ethics panel three times last year over his strong-arm tactics, and a grand jury in Texas investigating his fund-raising activities there has indicted three former associates.

In recent weeks, pressure on the fiery Republican from suburban Houston has only increased. News reports have raised questions about the propriety of trips to London and Malaysia, and yesterday a new allegation emerged: The Associated Press reported that DeLay did not reimburse lobbyist Jack Abramoff for the use of a skybox at Washington's MCI Center for a Three Tenors concert.

DeLay later voted against legislation opposed by some of Abramoff's clients, mostly Indian tribes.

Abramoff is under federal investigation for his dealings with the tribes.

DeLay "has said over and over, in communications and publicly, that he has done nothing wrong, and he wanted to have an opportunity to state his case," Hastings said yesterday after proposing the ethics investigation. "This is a means by which he can state his case. Very simple."

In a statement, DeLay said he welcomed the opportunity to make his case before the committee.

The squabble over the ethics panel began late last year, when House Republicans voted to overturn a decade-old rule requiring any party leader to step down if indicted. The change was later abandoned, after a barrage of criticism.

When Congress reconvened in January, Republican leaders successfully pushed to change the rules for ethics investigations. In addition, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, replaced the committee's chairman, Republican Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, and two other members - a move that Democrats claim was punishment for their support of the rebukes to DeLay.

Mollohan has since blocked the ethics panel from being set up, demanding the rules be changed back. He introduced legislation to do that and has 205 co-sponsors, including three Republicans: Hefley and Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. But Hastings said he doubted the rules would be reversed, and DeLay threw the responsibility to do so onto Hastert.

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