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Panel Kept Bell From Using Mail

The House Administration Committee last week blocked Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) from distributing two “Dear Colleague” letters concerning his highly charged ethics complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

At the same time, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) also prevented Bell from discussing his complaint during the weekly Democratic Whip meeting, caucus sources said.

The unusual decision to stop a lawmaker from using the House’s internal mail-delivery system, a method used to send countless routine communications with colleagues, was made by the Republican staff of the Administration Committee with the support of Democrats, sources in both parties said.

The unusual chain of events began with a one-page letter dated June 15 in which Bell explained that he had filed an ethics complaint against DeLay with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

“There is a mountain of evidence suggesting that Representative DeLay is guilty of serious criminal acts, including: bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering and abuse of power. A formal investigation is long overdue,” Bell wrote. “Representative DeLay has consistently flouted the rules of the House of Representatives. It has now come to light that he has flouted the laws of the State of Texas and may soon face felony indictment by the Travis County District Attorney in Austin.”

Bell wrote that his complaint was “not about partisan politics; this is about doing what is right. … Regardless of political affiliation, I am confident that on examining the evidence, Representative DeLay’s corrupt, organized effort to illegally use public resources and American tax dollars for a partisan political power grab will be clear.”

When Bell’s staff delivered copies of the letter for distribution to the inside mail delivery system, someone in the postal operation quickly alerted the House Administration Committee’s majority staff. The GOP and Democratic staff decided not to allow the letter to go out because they concluded that it violated House rules.

“He is blatantly sending over-the-top, political, partisan ‘Dear Colleagues’ and he knows it,” Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said in a interview Friday. A “Dear Colleague” letter “may not be political, and our rules say it may not be personal,” Ney said.

On Friday, Bell attempted to send out another, different letter titled “End Corruption in the House” and was blocked again by the committee. Ney called the second letter worse than the first and vowed to thwart Bell from using the internal mail system for delivery of what he called “rank” communications.

“I’m starting to think he’s doing this on purpose,” Ney said. “If this is the bitterness of losing an election and he wants to sit here and try to violate the rules of the House, I’m not going to let him do it. It is just not going to happen.”

Ney said that Bell could pay for the postage for sending his letters with money from his campaign, but that he could not use taxpayer money for such messages.

Eric Burns, a spokesman for Bell, called the committee’s action unprecedented and outrageous. “The ethics investigation is official business before the House,” Burns said. “Member-to-Member communication is protected by the Constitution.” Lawmakers do not use the franking privilege to send out “Dear Colleague” letters, he said, so the restrictions that apply to the content of franked mail do not apply to internal communications.

“To try to stop Members talking to each other, particularly about matters that are official business as the ethics complaint is, is just ridiculous,” Burns said. “It constitutes part of a larger campaign to suppress this complaint from being discussed and seeing the light of day.”

Both Ney and aides to DeLay denied that the leader had anything to do with the decision to block Bell. “We heard about it at the same time everybody else heard about it — after the fact,” a senior DeLay aide said.

This source added that DeLay has made no effort to counter Bell’s charges using other Republicans as surrogates. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) attempted to change House rules last week to prevent lame-duck lawmakers like Bell from filing ethics complaints, although even Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) rejected that proposal. “We had no contact with LaHood either,” the DeLay aide said. “We are absolutely not doing that. We haven’t lifted a finger to do that.”

Inside mail is a service provided by House Postal Operations for the Capitol, Congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress along with the White House, the State Department and the Social Security Administration.

According to the Congressional Member’s Handbook, the inside mail system may be used for “Dear Colleague” letters or similar correspondence relating to the official and representational business of the Member. This correspondence must be on official letterhead and must be signed by the Member.

The handbook adds that “inside mail service may not be used to circulate letters which are personal or campaign-related, or which constitute commercial advertising except when postage is paid for with personal expenses.” Both GOP and Democratic House Administration Committee aides said they used Franking Commission guidelines to evaluate Bell’s letters.

However, the commission’s manual specifically notes that inside mail does not fall under the Franking Commission’s authority.

“Matter which is processed and delivered as ‘Inside Mail’ is not subject to the provisions of the franking laws,” according to the Franking Commission’s manual. It describes “Inside Mail” as a messenger service of the House provided to Members for the transmittal of inter-office communications. Since this mail matter never enters the U.S. Postal Service system, and since it is not handled by employees of the U.S. Postal Service, it is not considered “franked mail” under the statute. Therefore, the manual says, it is not necessary for Members to obtain advisory opinions on material sent as “Inside Mail.”

In a related development, Bell also was prevented from talking about his complaint during the weekly Democratic Whip meeting. According to sources inside the session, several lawmakers expressed an interest in having Bell address the group to explain his decision to seek an investigation of DeLay.

But Pelosi stood up and said, “No, this is not the time,” the sources said.

One aide described the exchange as a “very awkward moment. She shouldn’t have done it, because Members wanted to hear from him and know what was going on.”

Democratic sources explained that Pelosi was concerned about Bell discussing the ethics case at the Whip meeting when members of the ethics committee were in the room.

Eric Burns, Bell’s spokesman, confirmed that Pelosi prevented the Texas Democrat from speaking at the Whip meeting, but suggested that it was a “miscommunication.”

Bell “acknowledged that it was awkward,” said Burns of Pelosi’s decision. But Burns added that Bell “unequivocally” will be allowed to address the Democratic Caucus on his ethics filings this week.

John Bresnahan and Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.