House struggles to break impasse on ethics panel

New questions are posed over source of payment for Delay's overseas travel

April 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - House Republicans said yesterday that they intended to double their efforts this week to resolve a partisan impasse over the Ethics Committee as Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, the majority leader, faced new disclosures regarding his overseas travel.

"We need a functioning Ethics Committee," a senior Republican leadership aide said yesterday. He said Speaker Dennis Hastert was increasingly determined to find a resolution to the dispute keeping the panel that enforces House rules from beginning operations this session. The official said that Hastert is being driven more by institutional concerns than the dispute surrounding DeLay.

DeLay has called for the panel to review trips that have come under scrutiny, especially ones involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff played a role in arranging a trip to Britain for DeLay, his wife and his staff members in May 2000, a trip that included stops in London and at the fabled St. Andrews golf course in Scotland.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that it had obtained travel receipts showing that Abramoff's personal credit card had been used to pay for $6,938 in airfare for DeLay between the United States and Britain, suggesting a possible violation of House ethics rules, which bar lobbyists from paying for a lawmaker's travel. It had been previously disclosed that Abramoff had paid for part of DeLay's hotel bill. DeLay's lawyer denied any impropriety.

Democrats said the latest disclosures about DeLay's travel were another illustration of why the Republican majority should undo rules that are at the center of the feud that has paralyzed the Ethics Committee and left it unable to look into the activities of the majority leader or any other House member.

"These latest revelations add to what every day is increasingly clear - that Republican leaders must return to the bipartisan rules and allow the Ethics Committee to organize so that all of these allegations can be dealt with appropriately and in a non-partisan manner," said Stacey Bernards, a spokeswoman for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.

Democrats have blocked the committee from starting work this year, asserting that rule changes forced through by the Republican majority at the start of the session undermine the panel.

DeLay was admonished by the Ethics Committee in three instances last year, and any new finding by the panel that DeLay acted inappropriately regarding his travel would be a significant problem for the majority leader, whose political activities are also under scrutiny in Texas.

DeLay's lawyer, Bobby R. Burchfield, said yesterday that the lawmaker still believed that the National Center for Policy Research, a conservative group, paid for his trip to Britain in accordance with House travel rules and did not know whether Abramoff, who was at the time a member of the group's board of directors, might have used his personal credit card to pay for parts of the trip.

The center has said that it invited DeLay and his wife on the trip and paid the costs, which totaled tens of thousands of dollars. Burchfield also said that DeLay and his legal team had not been approached by the Justice Department or the FBI as part of a grand jury investigation of Abramoff.

Federal investigators say that Abramoff is under scrutiny by a task force led by the Justice Department and FBI that is trying to determine if the lobbyist, an old friend of several members of Congress, including DeLay, may have defrauded Indian tribes that were among his lobbying clients, and whether he may have improperly provided gifts to lawmakers in exchange for their help on legislation.

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