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Watchdog Groups Seek Outside DeLay Counsel

Citing precedent in the cases of former House Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Jim Wright (D-Texas), two political watchdog groups are calling for the appointment of an outside counsel to lead an investigation into allegations of unethical conduct by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

The two groups, Common Cause, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement that they “believe that the only way to ensure public confidence that the allegations against Rep. DeLay are fully and fairly investigated is for the Ethics Committee to appoint an independent, non-partisan, outside counsel with prosecutorial experience and a reputation for integrity.”

Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director and a former Democratic Congressional staffer, pointed not just to DeLay’s role as an enforcer of party discipline but also that he has donated, through his leadership PAC, to the re-election campaigns of four of the five Republican members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Sloan said this is evidence that it will be nearly impossible for any GOP lawmaker to avoid political bias in deciding whether to investigate DeLay.

Sloan also noted that House Democrats have a heavy political interest in the outcome of any probe of the Texas Republican, making an outside counsel the only way for the ethics committee to ensure impartiality if it does in fact proceed with an investigation of DeLay.

The request for an independent counsel comes after an ethics complaint was filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) alleging that the Majority Leader illegally solicited corporate donations in return for legislative favors, used a PAC to “launder” illegal corporate donations in Texas, and abused his office by interfering in the Texas redistricting battle last year.

“No matter what decision the ethics committee makes, it’s going to be seen as a political decision,” said Sloan. The appointment of an outside counsel “would inoculate the committee from such charges.”

Bell seconded the call for an outside counsel. Ethics chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) “have expressed their intention that any investigation be nonpartisan in nature,” Bell told Roll Call. “The best way to ensure that occurs is by appointing an independent investigator to look into Tom DeLay.”

Stuart Roy, DeLay’s communications director, dismissed the call for an independent counsel as a political stunt by the two watchdog groups.

“These sham watchdog groups are silent on the only Congressional leader who has broken campaign-finance laws and been fined” by the Federal Election Commission, referring to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). One of Pelosi’s PACs was fined $21,000 by the FEC earlier this year for violating donation limits.

Roy also accused Common Cause and CREW of being “Democrat front groups,” and pointed out that individuals associated with these two organizations and other watchdog groups have given far more financial support to Democrats than Republicans.

DeLay has until next week to formally respond to Bell’s complaint, and has hired former Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), now a partner at the firm Bracewell & Patterson, to represent him in the case. The ethics committee itself has 45 days from when Bell’s complaint was accepted — June 22 — to decide whether to begin an investigation, although the panel can ask for a 45-day extension of that deadline.

The last time an outside counsel was appointed by the ethics committee was during the investigation of Gingrich. The panel tapped James Cole, a former Justice Department official who also took part in the investigation of the House Bank scandal in the early 1990s. Gingrich ended up with a reprimand for failing to consult tax attorneys before creating a network of nonprofit groups under his control, and he was fined $300,000 for providing inaccurate and misleading information to the ethics committee during the probe.

In 1988, Gingrich pushed for an outside counsel to look into the allegations against Wright. At the time, Gingrich told his House colleagues in a letter that the “rules normally applied by the House Ethics Committee to an investigation of a typical Member are insufficient in an investigation of the Speaker of the House,” and added that such an investigation “has to meet a higher standard of public accountability and integrity.”

In the Wright case, the ethics committee hired Richard Phelan, a Chicago attorney, to be outside counsel. That probe went far beyond the original charges that had been filed against Wright by Gingrich and resulted in the resignation of the Texas Democrat from Congress in 1989.

In 1998, amid an investigation of former House Transportation Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), there was also calls for an outside counsel to look into the activities of the powerful chairman. In this case, however, the ethics committee rejected the suggestion. Shuster was eventually reprimanded for allowing a lobbyist to operate in his Congressional office.

If the ethics committee votes to take up the DeLay case and decides that it wants to appoint an outside counsel, that counsel would report back to an investigative subcommittee created to handle the investigation. That subcommittee would then make recommendations back to the full committee for action.

The outside counsel also could not be dismissed prior to the end of the investigation without a majority vote by the full ethics committee.

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