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Ethics Panel Takes Up Bell’s DeLay Complaint

The House ethics committee on Tuesday formally accepted an ethics complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), marking the first step in deciding whether the panel will actually investigate Bell’s allegations against the powerful Texas lawmaker.

Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s chairman and ranking member, respectively, now have several options for resolving Bell’s complaint.

Hefley and Mollohan can recommend to the full committee that Bell’s complaint be dismissed in whole or in part. Alternately, they could send a letter to DeLay admonishing or cautioning him on his activities, or else set up an investigative subcommittee to conduct a formal probe of the charges. Or they could ask for more time to study the complaint before taking action.

Hefley and Mollohan have five legislative days or 45 calendar days to make a decision on their recommendation, and they can ask for another 45 days to act. If no decision is reached by then, committee rules require that an investigative subcommittee be established, although either Hefley and Mollohan can move at any time to place a request for an investigative subcommittee on the full committee’s agenda, at which point one would be created only if a majority of the bipartisan, 10-member panel agrees.

DeLay, who was notified of the ethics committee’s decision Tuesday afternoon, will have 30 days to respond to Bell’s charges. Asked Tuesday whether he had discussed the complaint with his colleagues, DeLay said, “It was sort of a topic of discussion last week. Of course I’ve talked to Members” about it.

DeLay said he had raised the subject at last week’s GOP Conference meeting and that his message was, “If the Democrats are going to do this, let ’em do it.”

As for the ethics committee’s deliberations on whether to move forward with an investigation, DeLay said he would do nothing to try to influence the panel’s actions, adding that he was confident it would handle the matter fairly.

At press time, DeLay had not hired a lawyer to handle his case but was expected to do so shortly, according to GOP sources.

Bell expressed gratitude that the ethics committee had decided his complaint was properly filed. “The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has taken an important first step in the long journey to restore integrity and ethics to the people’s house and hold the House Majority Leader accountable for his actions,” Bell said in a statement.

Bell has alleged that DeLay accepted “illegally solicited” campaign contributions from corporations such as Westar Energy, in return for official actions that benefited those companies; misused a Texas PAC he created in order to “launder illegal corporate contributions” and funnel those funds to Texas legislative races; and improperly used his office to aid searches for Texas state lawmakers who skipped town during a redistricting fight last year.

DeLay and his aides have adamantly denied all the charges.

House Democrats insist that they had nothing to do with the ethics complaint filed by the freshman lawmaker, who lost his bid for re-election in a primary due to a DeLay-backed redistricting plan. Among other things, the Democrats don’t want to be seen as violating a unofficial seven-year ethics cease-fire.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters on Tuesday he thinks the ethics panel “will look at this and do what is appropriate given the circumstances. I don’t want to prejudge that. They have that option [of a full investigation], but I don’t want to prejudge them taking that option.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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