Tom DeLay's Tainted Ethics Panel

It's not easy going head-to-head with Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the most powerful member in the House, but that's exactly what Houston Democratic Congressman Chris Bell is doing. According to the Associated Press, in mid-June, Rep. Bell "claimed DeLay illegally solicited campaign contributions in return for legislative favors and laundered illegal corporate contributions for use in Texas elections. Bell also alleged that DeLay improperly used his office to solicit help from federal agencies in searching for Democratic legislators who slipped out of Texas during last year's redistricting fight."

After Republicans - with support from DeLay - took control of the Texas legislature for the first time in well over 100 years, the Texas GOP redrew the state's congressional map – a plan aimed at costing at least five Democrats their House seats in November. Democrats in the state legislature left the state to avoid voting on DeLay's redistricting plan, but eventually returned and were unable to kill the remapping effort. While they were out of state, Rep. Bell charges that Delay illegally used the Federal Aviation Administration to track down the legislators.

Rep. Bell's charges are slated to be taken up by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the House ethics committee. Will Rep. Bell get a fair hearing? It might be difficult, seeing as how four of the five Republicans on the committee "have received campaign contributions from DeLay's political action committee," according to Sheila Krumholz, the research director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics. She told Alternet that the four ethics committee members received $27,004 in contributions from DeLay entities.

From 1997 through May 2004, according to Federal Election Commission records, DeLay's political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC) and the Tom DeLay Congressional Committee: $14,777 to Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri - $9,000 in contributions came in 2000; $8,053 to Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio; $2,764 to Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois in 1998; and $1,410 to Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, also in 1998. Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, the ethics committee chairman, received no money from DeLay's political action committee.

Phone calls by Alternet to the Congressional offices of all four Representatives who received contributions from DeLay were not returned. Sarah Sheldon, Rep. Hefley's Press Secretary, told me that "the Congressman had no comment on Rep. DeLay's contributions to the other Republican members on the ethics committee."

Thus far, during this election cycle, ARMPAC has raised nearly $3 million and has generously given over $600,000 to 75 House candidates, many of them incumbents.

Unfortunately, there's no sunshine law that covers the gatherings of the 10-member ethics committee – the only House committee divided equally among Republicans and Democrats: "Panel meetings are closed to the public and investigations are rarely acknowledged," the AP reported. In addition, all participants, including clerks and secretaries "must swear to reveal nothing confidential."

Rep. Bell was assisted in drafting his complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, a coalition of government watchdog groups that includes Judicial Watch, the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, Public Citizen, Common Cause, The Center for Responsive Politics and Public Campaign. CREW's Executive Director Melanie Sloan stated: "No other member of the House has consistently shown this much disrespect for the rule of law and the honor of Congress and the country should thank Congressman Bell for his courage."

DeLay recently acknowledged that he had "attorneys all over the place," the Houston Chronicle recently reported. "I consult attorneys before I leave my office and make sure I am doing everything legally and ethically," he said. Over the past three years DeLay "has maintained a legal defense fund and paid legal expenses to Bracewell & Patterson, a Houston-based firm." The firm's Washington office is "representing him" in the ethics complaint filed by Rep. Bell.

According to Roll Call, Ed Bethune of the Bracewell & Patterson law firm "has served as a registered lobbyist for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp... one of the companies under scrutiny by the Travis County District Attorney in Austin, TX, in a criminal investigation of DeLay's Texans for a Republic Majority Political Action Committee. Roll Call cites IRS records that show Burlington Northern contributed $26,000 to that PAC." In Austin, DeLay has criminal defense attorneys Bill White and Steve Brittain "watching what's going on my behalf," the Majority Leader said. (For more on this and other DeLay affairs check out the web site Taking on Tom DeLay).

The House Majority Leader's fundraising activities are getting mega press attention these days. A Washington Post article over the past weekend revealed that DeLay had solicited "$100,000 in donations to his political action committee from Enron's top lobbyists in May 2001 so he could help bankroll the redistricting" effort. Amy Goodman, the host of Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!" show reported that the $100,000 was in addition "to the $250,000 the company had already pledged to the Republican Party that year."

In a July 13, interview with Goodman, Lou Dubose, the author of the forthcoming political biography, "The Hammer: Tom Delay, God, Money and the United States Congress." Commenting on the latest allegations against DeLay, Dubose described a relationship between DeLay and Enron that went back to 1994, when Enron donated $250,000 to DeLay just as his ARMPAC was getting off the ground.

Commenting on Rep. Bell's chances with the House ethics committee, Dubose told Goodman that for all practical purposes the ethics committee has been moribund: "For the past seven years, it's done nothing."

According to the AP, "The committee's next public step will be to dismiss the charges or to create an investigative subcommittee – with two Republicans and two Democrats – a decision that must be made by the first week of August, though more time can be requested."

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